Every once in a while, as I’m drifting off the sleep, I have a idea for a post. Last night, I found myself wondering if it were possible to choose a “Single of the Decade” for each artificial ten-year slot of the Rock and Roll Era.
Of course, it was silly, but I kept on it because some were so easy: “Roll Over Beethoven” for the fifties, “Money Changes Everything” for the eighties.
The sixties seemed problematic due to an embarrassment of riches, but I kept asking myself….”Ode to Billie Joe?”
Once the idea took hold it was hard to shake, even as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Gimme Shelter” and “Respect” all came rapidly to mind. I mean shouldn’t the one song that has to stand in for the entire sixties (not just the post-JFK assassination part) have a air of unsolvable mystery about it?
I fell asleep soon after and I wasn’t going to do anything about it when I woke up.
I’m still not going to do anything about it. Too many arguments in my own head.
But I probably only think about the unsolvable mystery of Bobbie Gentry a couple of times a year and it sure was weird to find this on Twitter today…
Sept. 21. I probably won’t have the money–trying to save for a BIG project concerning my fiction-writing career.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t poss the word along. (Hat tip to David Cantwell’s Twitter feed, where one can learn a lot of good things.)
But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.
They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.
But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.
It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).
Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.
I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).
Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.
…That one “Billie Joe McAllister” jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
You can enter the YouTube rabbit hole at your own risk and track down the live versions Bobbie Gentry performed on various television shows over most of the next decade and literally bear witness as the song takes over first her career and then her life. Each version has its own revelations, but I prefer the one heard here, before the flood consumed even the delicate and beautiful nuances of her accent, a process that had already begun with the recorded version itself, one of the greatest records ever made, which, after half a century of speculation and forty years of Gentry playing the Garbo of the Delta, remains untouchable.
Commenter abqchris expressed an interest in some of my autobiographical links. Since I seem to have picked up a new round of viewers the past few months and multiple links don’t always work from the comments section I thought it might be a good idea to just collect them in a post. Once or twice a year I’ve opened myself up a bit on here. These are the longish posts where I’ve gotten the most “personal.”
While I was recuperating and catching up this month, three of the quiet giants of mid-twentieth century American music passed away. Each left behind a spouse of more than forty years (in Hellerman’s case, Ring Lardner’s granddaughter). Beyond that, I don’t know any more about them than what you can find on Wikipedia so I’ll follow their own leads and keep it short, to the point and focused on the music.
Fred Hellerman: As harmony singer, arranger, songwriter, producer and guitarist, the glue in the Weavers, blacklisted fifties-era folkies who paved most of the road that led to the modern folk music movement which, being as much movement as music, was an inextricable part of any progress we may have made, then or since.
Bobbie Gentry (or, as I like to say, the Bobbie Gentry) recorded his best song and got everything there was to get…
…but no tribute to the last Weaver would be complete without this…
J.D. Loudermilk: Something of an oddball folkie himself. As an eccentric songwriter, he hit the country and pop charts decade after decade and finally strung together a series of memorable vignettes–“Sittin’ In the Balcony,” “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” “Abilene” “Indian Reservation,” “Break My Mind,” “Waterloo,” “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” “Tobacco Road”–as memorable as any short story writer’s. He covered the waterfront and then some.
Jean Shepard: As hardcore a honky tonk singer as ever strode the Grand Ole Opry stage, and she strode it for sixty years, longer than any other woman. She made the transition to the Nashville Sound slowly but successfully in the sixties, then spent the rest of her life and career trying to keep the barbarians from the gates. And she may have been wrong about Olivia Newton-John, but she was right about Blake Shelton. His initials really are B.S. Good night grand lady.
(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)
The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.
The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”
I couldn’t tell them.
(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)
I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.
All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).
And that was all I was ever able to do.
Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.
She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…
* * * *
My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).
(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)
There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.
The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):
Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”
“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”
I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.
By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.
* * * *
You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).
But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.
In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.
And a smart aleck.
One day, in my full-blown smart-alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and a half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”
One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.
Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.
As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference. . . .Right away.”
By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”
And, God help me, you could.
That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.
But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.
She taught me.
One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment which time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.
And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.
Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).
Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:
One day I was listening to this…
…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”
Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…
My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”
Another day, this…
…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”
Another day, this (just out on the radio)…
The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.
Voices. Or maybe just sounds.
Another day, this…
My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”
Voices. Or sounds.
Another day, it might be this…
And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!
(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)
Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…
And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.
(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)
Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.
They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.
They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.
They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten-year-old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.
If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.
And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.
Here’s to then. . . .And to Voices. And sounds.
Happy Mother’s Day!
(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)
THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?
NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.
(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)
This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journal) here and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).
Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.
But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.
The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.
And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)
More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:
Along about now, I should make two things clear.
First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.
Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”
What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.
And only me.
I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).
The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)
I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.
Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.
Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?
Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!
Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.
To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.
Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.
Boy was I wrong.
“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.
Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.
I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.
Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.
So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.
That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!
I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.
On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.
That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….
Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.
How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.
I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.
I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.
So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.
So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.
In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.
And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…
…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.
Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.
Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.
Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”
Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.
So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.
Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).
The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.
There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)
On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.
Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.
It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.
It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”
Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.
So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.
Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.
“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”
Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:
Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…
Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed:
Evie Sands was one of rock and roll’s great near-misses and great lost voices.
So it sort of makes sense that I discovered her in a case of forty-fives a friend of mine swapped me during our senior year in high school for helping him cheat on an algebra test that he ultimately failed anyway.
I suspect the main reason he went ahead and made the deal despite being grounded for the rest of the school year by my inability to lift him over the line–and thereby losing the stakes that made it a big enough deal for him to consider cheating in the first place (studying, of course, was simply not a cool option)–was because they were his sister’s forty-fives.
He swore she’d never miss them.
Since I already had enough vinyl in my veins to risk flunking a teacher’s aide class on my way to graduation day–don’t worry, when I was trying to change those neat little minuses into neat little pluses with a mechanical pencil the teacher knew good and well had no place in grading papers (red markers were preferred then as doubtless they still are), he was looking straight over at me, which told me that Edgar Allen Poe knew a thing or two about guilt and that, having cooked up this deal less than forty-eight hours earlier, my friend had probably spent some part of the interim running his mouth about how he had the test in the bag because he had me in the bag–it’s more than a little likely I would have run into Evie somewhere along the way.
Still, that particular forty-five of hers that was hiding in a stack of my friend’s sister’s purloined stash represented a real marker in my development as a record fanatic.
I had already noticed that some records I loved didn’t stay on the radio very long, but when it came to judging the past I was stuck with what still lingered in the air or in the written record–in oldies’ formats or K-tel commercials or my trusty chart books or even stray conversations with people who had been around “back then.”
You know, back in the good old days of five or ten years before when I was technically alive but thoroughly oblivious.
But Sands and her record fit no ready frame of reference in my 1978 world. So “Any Way That You Want Me,” which had come out when I was eight years old, reached me like a talisman from a lost time.
Odd that is had this peculiar effect, because by 1978 I had actually heard enough “oldies” to know that a lot of the record’s elements were perhaps over-familiar. To, in effect, know what I didn’t know.
I did not know, for instance, that the bridge was a direct lift from “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but if somebody had told me it was, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, hadn’t the Doors ripped the intro to “Touch Me” from the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne?” Sure they had. And didn’t I like springing that one on anybody who thought the Doors were the coolest band ever and made retching noises any time Frankie Valli’s name came up?
Sure I did.
I didn’t doubt there were a lot of reasons why “Any Way That You Want Me” couldn’t be heard on the radio anymore (if it ever had been), why there were no tantalizing snippets on cheesy TV ads, why there was no mention of it in my chart or reference books, which in those days, never seemed to stretch to include anything which hadn’t made the Top 40 unless it was from some serious “artist”’s cool album.
Believe me, I knew Evie Sands singing “Any Way That You Want Me’ wasn’t cool.
I’d have known that much even if it hadn’t been pilfered from a girl.
Maybe some place. Maybe some time.
Not where I lived. Not then.
I even knew–sort of–that there might be troubling socio-political implications in the lyric scenario of a woman pleading with a man to take her any way he’ll have her.
I also knew none of that mattered.
Because the two things that grabbed me were the tone of desperate pleading and the quality of the singer’s voice.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to stop caring about what is cool.
Evie Sands made lots of fine records. As an up and comer with big talent in the New York scene that was turning out the likes of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, she should have had a hit with “Take Me For a Little While” in the mid-sixties. Should have, that is, except that somebody swiped the master, took it to Chicago, cut it with soul singer Jackie Ross (who wasn’t aware of the subterfuge), got it on the streets first and muddied the waters so badly that neither version ended up charting nationally even though both caught fire wherever they were played. The fallout within the industry was bad enough to scotch Evie’s followup “I Can’t Let Go,” which was stronger than the hit versions by either the Hollies or, much later, Linda Ronstadt (two artists I happen to love).
Not too long after that the great writer/producer Chip Taylor waxed his masterpiece “Angel of the Morning” with her (after Connie Francis reportedly turned it down) and, again, her killer version took off in numerous local markets.
The orders poured in just as the record label was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.
Not long after, Merrilee Rush cut an equally killer version for a record company that wasn’t going bankrupt and her take soared into the top ten, becoming a permanent radio fixture and a direct model for Juice Newton’s big hit in the early eighties.
So it went, until “Any Way That You Want Me” was released in 1969.
It wasn’t quite as much a mystery in its own time as it was a decade later when I encountered it somewhere in the middle of my friend’s sister’s nice little collection of Three Dog Night and Jackson 5 and Isley Brothers’ records and felt myself getting–as the retro-phrase now often used for entirely separate reasons to describe those years goes–dazed and confused.
Like Sands’ earlier major efforts, the record had been a big hit in a bunch of different local markets, including Birmingham, Alabama, which probably had at least some influence on the southern Alabama region that contained the Top 40 stations for the section of the Florida Panhandle where I would pass through high school–the market, that is, where high school girls who had gone off to college by the time I came along and left their forty-five collections unprotected from their dope-smoking, not-into-studying-but-really-don’t-want-to-get-grounded little brothers, were likely to hear the records that drove them into stores with whatever part of their baby-sitting money went for something to spin on the Dansette.
So, unlike those previous near-misses, “Any Way That You Want Me” did not sink without a trace, to await the high end collectors who have kept Evie Sands’ name alive in the collective memory bank, two, three and four decades on. It was, in fact, something of a hit, reaching the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 nationally and selling around 500,000 copies.
Even then, something held it slightly in check. It rambled around the middle of the charts and became (with, of all things, Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”) the record that spent the most time on Billboard‘s main chart without cracking the top 50.
Seventeen weeks as it happened.
There have been plenty of top ten and even #1 records that spent less.
Something, then, kept it from breaking out all the way.
Perhaps the fact that the Troggs, who had hit #1 a couple of summers earlier with Taylor’s “Wild Thing”–as far from the sensibilities of “Any Way That You Want Me” as Void is from the Creation (I’ll leave it to each Earthling to decide for his or herself which record is which, and just gently remind all and sundry that one cannot exist without the other)–had released a hit version in the UK in 1966, tipped the Cosmos just slightly.
Or maybe Evie’s version was simply a little too strong, a little too mysterious, contained just a little too much genuine ache, to find its home anywhere but the edge of the frame.
Maybe it was destined to remain half-hidden, waiting for us kindred spirits to discover it by our own haphazard methods.
Some records are like that.
Evie’s career went on for a bit–was, in fact, just winding down when my path intersected hers.
She got an album out of the single’s success and it’s quite fine, featuring the kind of soulful, folkish material that smoky-voiced goddesses like Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Gentry were doing around the same time and, strictly as a vocalist, Sands was very much in their league, even as the plaintive aspects of her timbre put her in a league of her own.
In my world–then and now–that’s saying something.
Unfortunately, the future was already behind her. The chance for sustained, long term success had already flown. There were a couple of modest hits later in the seventies. A couple of decades further along, there was a reunion with Chip Taylor and his partner, Al Gorgoni, which produced a lovely CD called Women In Prison. She still tours and occasionally produces other artists.
The early days are still where the magic is, though.
The magic and the ache.
Boats against the current.
What might have been.
You know the drill.
I happened to first encounter her in that phase of any music lover’s life when discoveries are happening on a near-daily basis. But I suspect that she would have broken through with spectacular force whenever and wherever I found her.
Heck, I don’t even suspect. I know.
I live in America in the age of decline and fall and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The past never seems nearer and dearer than when we know the future is behind us.