One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)
Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.
Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).
She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.
They were the sound, not the place.
Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.
Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):
And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:
Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.
As most of you know by now, I have started 2019 with a couple of new 60’s-oriented ventures. There will now be a monthly column at Rick Shoemaker’s blog Sixties Music Secrets, devoted to all things 60’s, and a minimum of one or two posts a week at Medium under the publication Tell It Like It Was, where I will post stories under my own name as well as occasional collaborations with Neal Umphred, Lew Shiner and (possibly) others.
REMEMBER: Everything you do to support these efforts helps me and my writing career. EVERYTHING. That means linking, reading, clapping, liking, bookmarking, following, spreading the word to family and friends who engage social media and ESPECIALLY becoming a fellow member on Medium (a mere $5 a month). These efforts will also help Rick, Lew and Neal in some measure–anything that leads to greater readership and a higher online profile benefits us all.
For now, my plan is as follows:
Anything NOT related to the 60’s (or at least 1955-1975), will continue to be posted EXCLUSIVELY HERE.
SOME things related to the 60’s will be posted here first. They may or may not then ALSO be posted at Tell It Like It Was.
Any content provided to Sixties Music Secrets will be exclusive over there, but I will ALWAYS post an announcement and a link here.
Content posted at Medium may or may not appear here first (it may even be an older post). If it is subsequently re-posted at Tell It Like It Was, it will ALWAYS have some new content (sometimes minimal, sometimes extensive), and I will ALWAYS post an announcement and a link here.
Some posts will be exclusive to Tell It Like It Was.
The columns I post at Sixties Music Secrets will relate to the 60’s in some way, shape or fashion, but may not be confined to music.
The stories I post at Tell It Like It Was will relate to the music of the period 1955-1975, with an emphasis on the 60’s
I hope that what I’m bringing to these projects (besides whatever skill or insight I have as a writer) is a small but fiercely loyal audience, which now has its mission statement.
More soon, but for now, help us hang on to Rock and Roll America and…
Rock and rollers have always killed the Gershwin signature tune “Summertime.”
Sam Cooke killed it. Janis Joplin absolutely killed it. Billy Preston killed it.
Every one of them got more out of it than any pre-rock pop singer I’ve heard.
Glenn Frey and the Eagles went even further and wrote “Lyin’ Eyes,” (a better song) about the same girl.
But until this week, I never realized that the version which perhaps went the furthest didn’t even use the words. I can’t really convey what it was like to hear it drifting in from the other room, backing up “Hip Hug-Her” on Time is Tight, the super-fine box set Stax’s reissue label put out on Booker T and the MGs a generation back. Suffice it to say the Memphis boys conceded nothing to either Tin Pan Alley or Charlie Parker and from now on it will always be one of those records I reference spiritually when I catch myself wondering what all the dread and beauty felt like, just before the fall.
From ’66…And you can imagine it matching the mood at anything from a backyard barbecue to a flag-draped funeral.
….By which I mean the kind of rulers you can use for drumsticks if you don’t have real drumsticks….or drums.
I’ve heard there is such a thing as “air-drumming” which I guess is kin to air guitar, but, while I used to play occasional air guitar (like everybody, I hope, who doesn’t play actual guitar), I never could get the point of air drumming. I honestly hope it was all a misunderstanding and it’s never really been a thing.
And, just to be clear, I don’t do much “drumming” of any kind anymore and by “not much” I mean I can’t remember the last time I even held a ruler, let alone broke one.
But I used to do it a lot. I liked to play steady rhythm on the parts of the legs that are just above the knees, though I usually tried to keep a shelf or a wall or a chair handy for the rolls and flourishes.
Because of the knee-and-thigh element, a heavy wooden ruler was not really a good option. I imagine it would have been the same for an actual drumstick (which I wouldn’t have wanted to risk breaking anyway). I wasn’t a masochist, so beating myself black and blue held no appeal. Light plastic rulers were generally useless because they broke too easily. One good session with any of the acts I’m about to mention and, boom, crack, shatter, it was time for a replacement.
That left hard plastic. Something like this…
Handy. Because, back in my impetuous youth, just singing, or shouting, along wasn’t always quite enough, and the pain and pleasure (i.e., the amount of damage done to me and the ruler respectively) had to be kept in a sensible balance even if I was temporarily out of my fantasy drumming head.
And, so (with apologies to Keith Moon and the Surfaris, who I could never keep up with though I sure had a lot of fun trying, and to Dino Danelli, who always lost me at the twirl), my top six ruler-breakers–the six that couldn’t be left off–in reverse order.
Drum roll, please….
#6 Artist: The Rolling Stones (1969) Song: “Gimme Shelter”
Drummer: Charlie Watts (Honestly, I never cared whether Mick or Merry won the famous battle between Heaven and Hell at the end. I was always too busy trying to keep that weird time….no chance of breaking anything if you lost that!)
#5 Artist: The Righteous Brothers (1964) Song: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”
Drummer: Earl Palmer (For the distant thunder at the beginning of the bridge and the explosion on top of your head at the end of it…and for being Earl Palmer.)
#4 Artist: The Clash (1979) Song: “Death Or Glory”
Drummer: Topper Headon (Surely the greatest licks ever played by a functioning heroin addict..and the other great whisper-to-scream bridge.)
#3 Artist: The 4 Seasons (1964) Song: “Dawn (Go Away)”
Drummer: Buddy Saltzman (“Instead of throwing a plate at somebody, I took it out on the drums. You had to get it out of your system.”)
#2 Artist: Sam and Dave Song: “I Thank You”
Drummer: Al Jackson, Jr. (Really the entire Stax catalog, where he used to anchor Booker T and the MGs, the Memphis Horns and the world’s greatest soul singers…all at once. But if I had to pick one…)
#1 Artist: The Go-Go’s (1981) Song: “Can’t Stop the World”
Drummer: Gina Schock (I should probably mention that all of these numbers used to gain traction by their company on the really great albums I liked to hear them on. Closing an album (as opposed to opening one, like “Gimme Shelter”), was definitely an advantage in this little mind game. Beauty and the Beat made all kinds of breakthroughs for all kinds of reasons, none of which were more important than what I used to say under my breath, with a smile between every cut, as the second side rolled by….”Turn It Up.” I wasn’t referring to volume, just channeling Ms. Schock’s vibe as the leader of the last truly great rock and roll rhythm section….This was the closer. Every time I would bet her fastball couldn’t really get any higher and harder after “You Can’t Walk In Your Sleep” and “Skidmarks On My Heart.” And every time I would be wrong.)
I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.
It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.
Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).
That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.
That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.
It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”
At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.
That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.
I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.
Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.
Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.
I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.
(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)