Still the best way to hear the revolution happening in real time. What’s remarkable at this distance is how quiet the music is at its core, something one would never say about E’s R&B predecessors though it might apply to some of his pop and bluegrass influences. The leap from “Blue Moon of Kentucky”–incendiary in context–to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (which wastes fine versions by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris–along with all of human history to that moment, including “That’s Alright Mama”) is still shocking. A miracle in other words and as inexplicable as ever.
9) The Firesign Theatre Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)
I had to pull this to be sure it was the source of The Department of Redundancy Department so of course I listened to the whole thing. I always found them hit and miss (I sort of thought that was the point–that nobody would get all of it, especially the people who swore they did.)
I laughed. Nervously. Like always. Still not sure if they were geniuses or complete frauds.
Which might also be the point.
8) The Beatles Second Album (1964)
If you accept the Beatles as a garage band before they were anything else, this is the greatest garage band album ever. It was, of course, put out by their American record company, Capitol, with any eye to maximum commercial exploitation of their magic, maximally commercial, moment.
But that doesn’t keep it from being their strongest LP, start to finish. “Roll Over Beethoven” (with George delivering a rabid lead vocal) and “Money” are the strongest of their many strong covers and you can smell their naked ambition in every groove. Capitalism 101 all the way around. If you substitute greed for ambition, you can understand why John Lennon spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to everyone…including the tragic pretense he could walk around the streets of the meanest city in the world like any other citizen without paying a price.
7) Nancy Sinatra Nancy (1969)
The greatest torch album recorded by any member of the Sinatra family and that’s no shame on the rest because, at least thematically, it might be the greatest torch album by any member of anybody’s family.
I scored it for three bucks at a record show in the early nineties and, after my first listen, immediately set out on a quest to track down the rest of her LPs, which were not easy to find in the Florida Panhandle in those days. (Later, I bought them all on CD, only to see them go in the Great CD Selloff of 2002. This is the only one I’ve replaced. Hey, I still got the vinyl versions of the rest.) It turned out this was her magnum opus, the album she had in her all along. Absent Lee Hazlewood, she eschewed any pretense of being hip or groovy and slowed everything to a crawl. “Light My Fire,” “Son of a Preacher Man” “For Once in My Life” even “Memories,” which was slow to begin with, are drawn into her space so thoroughly and intimately the question of whether her versions are “better” is left for fools. The killer was “Big Boss Man,” which she not only slowed down, but turned inside out. She got scant credit for any of this, of course. I wonder if it would have made a difference if they’d included “Home,” her tribute to the body bags coming home from Viet Nam (now available as a bonus track on the CD edition). Probably not. Returning soldiers weren’t very popular then. Dead or alive.
6) Charlie Rich The Fabulous Charlie Rich(1969)
One of the greatest vocal albums ever recorded, stellar even by the standards of ’69, which was the greatest vocal year in the history of American music.
Rich was one of the few singers who could immerse himself in Beautiful Loser mythos and get away with it, probably because he didn’t sound like he was imagining being beaten. He sounded like he was beaten. That he was barely hanging on.
This is the best place to hear the timless “Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs,” but the whole thing shines and “July 12, 1939,” his prequel/sequel to “Ode to Billie Joe” hasn’t aged a day either.
5) Linda Ronstadt Mad Love (1980)
An exchange in Greil Marcus’s mailbag had me pulling this one off the shelf for the first time in forever. I confess I missed it. She went New Wave (fake punk in Marcus’s words) and nailed it solid….like she usually did, except this is more consistent than anything I can remember except Heart Like a Whell and Prisoner in Disguise, the one-two punch that made her a superstar who could take these kind of chances in the first place.
This is also the one where she responded to Elvis Costello’s attack on her version of “Alison” by recording three more of his songs and beating him two falls out of three. That was after she called him a brat. It took brass to do all that in the brief period where he was a genius, but the real highlights, the title tune and “How Do I Make You,” don’t owe EC a thing. This one may go into heavy rotation.
4) James Brown Can Your Heart Stand It!! (1981)
This was actually my proper introduction to JB. What with all the box sets and CD reissues and what not, I’d forgotten how perfect it was
It only took one listen to remember. Understandably, people focus on the four-square funk bottom. But it was his singing that was the real miracle, the vocal equivalent of watching Elvis on television in the 50’s, or James himself on The T.A.M.I. Show.
You keep thinking, What will he do next?
Decades of listening don’t really yield any answers. The next move, whenever it comes, is still a surprise.
(And God bless the late, lamented Solid Smoke label, on which this and the next entry appeared.)
3) The Sheppards 18 Dusty Diamonds (1980)
This came out in the early 80’s, when record companies were just starting to pick up the pace when it came to discovering, or rediscovering, rock and roll’s bottomless nature.
The Sheppards were some kind of cross between doo wop and soul, a bit like The Jive Five. But, where the Five were always defined by Eugene Pitt’s dark, moody leads, the Sheppards were more flexible. That could lead them to the occasional silly novelty, but when they locked in, which was often, they were as great as anybody.
2) Ivory Joe Hunter The Man and His Music: Classics I & II (1983)
Well, as you can see this one is pretty obscure. I couldn’t find an image online for this particular collection, proving you still can’t find everything on the internet! (Well, proving I can’t anyway).
It’s a double-LP collection of Ivory Joe’s music from his late 40’s R&B heyday to his late 60’s forays into country. He was such a master of nuance that you could switch the production styles from one era to another and nobody would be the wiser. Intriguing discovery (and one more reason you should pay attention to your record collection) is a 1961 side “May the Best Man Win,” where he sounds so much like Charlie Rich you can’t help wondering who influenced who.
1) Dizzy Gillespie New Wave (1963)
My favorite bop album. One of these days I’m going to replace my scratchy vinyl with a clean-sounding CD. Since the vinyl came used (from my Dad’s flea market stash many moons ago), I’ve never heard it the way it’s supposed to be heard. I think the reason I haven’t upgraded is because I’m afraid it will lose something in the process.
Being the first form of American music made principally for dilettantes (or at least being principally exploited by them), bop’s not really my thing. It’s a pure mystery why I warmed to this one. But then, music is supposed to be a mystery isn’t it?
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.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.
WARNING: Proceed With Caution. Spiritual Speculation Ahead.
I found myself shaking hands with him. I got out of the car hastily, and after it drove away I wiped my hand on the side of my trousers. I felt dazed. He had focused a compelling personality upon me the way somebody might focus a big spotlight. He had that indefinable thing called presence, and he had it in large measure. I tried to superimpose the new image the upon the fellow I had met in Jack Omaha’s house, listlessly tying his tie after a session in Jack Omaha’s bed. That fellow’s anger had been pettish, slightly shrill. I could overlap my two images of the man. I wondered if my previous image had somehow been warped by the great blow on the back of my head when the explosion hurled me off my feet.
This man had been engaging, plausible, completely at ease. He made me feel as if it were very nice indeed to be taken into his confidence. There were dozens of things I wanted to ask him, but the chance was gone. The chance had driven away in a gleaming limousine, cool in the heat of the morning.
Yes, if he could project all that to a group, he could be elected. No sweat.
(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974…In the character of Travis McGee, offering the best description of Bill Clinton (aka “Frederick Van Harn”) anyone has managed, in fiction or elsewhere…note the date)
“By God, there’s nothing twisted about a man liking his pussy and going after it any danged place he can find it.”
(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974… In the character of Judge Jake Schermer, Bill Clinton’s (aka Frederick Van Harn’s) most succinct apologist, in fiction or elsewhere. Note the date.)
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Mark 8:36 (KJV)
Same for a woman.
The cruelest irony of Hillary Clinton’s final defeat is that she failed because she never managed to believe in the first lesson any meaningful definition of feminism should have taught her–the value of herself. The Quaker women who–driven and consoled by the Christian conscience, rather than nagged and annoyed by it in the manner of the modernist–assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, to launch the women’s rights movement, could have warned her of the cost.
Had she heeded their lessons–and those of the Methodism in which she herself was raised–she might well have become President long since.
She had all the other qualifications…and had them “in large measure.”
Instead, she chose, by all accounts with the utmost care, a different path. She chose to hitch her wagon to a rising male star and to place complete trust in his ability to drag her to the top with him.
Imagine how she felt on the day she realized she had married not only the man she thought she married (and he really was that man who “could be elected”) but also the man described–perfectly–above. Imagine how she felt, wherever she was along the journey (and it may have been as late as when she was presented with the unassailable evidence of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), when the harsh reality became inescapable.
Imagine how she felt the day she finally realized There’s nothing he won’t do….
Imagine how she felt when she realized that the man she had wrapped all her dreams around deserved to be stung to death by fire ants, like Fred Van Harn, but that such things only happen in pulp novels, never in real life. That if her husband was the conscious-less horn dog she never quite believed he was, he was probably also the lip-biting rapist and dixie-fried racist gunrunner she never quite believed he was either. And that, even if he was none of those other things she could never again quite disbelieve, he was still a conscious-less horn dog who would go to any lengths to personally and politically humiliate her (exactly where were his legendary persuasion skills, when Hillary-Care was going down in flames?…the same place his famous “political judgment” was the day he waited for Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix tarmac?) on the biggest stages in the world.
Imagine how she felt the day she realized she had married a man who would stop at nothing to keep her from doing the one and only thing that made it worth marrying him in the first place.
I don’t mean becoming America’s first woman president, though there is that.
I mean letting her breathe. For a minute.
Imagine how she felt when she realized that Hillary Rodham had long since disappeared into Hillary Clinton who disappeared into Hillary Rodham Clinton who finally disappeared into “Hillary Clinton”–more brand than name–all for the purpose of serving evil’s endless banalities so that she could one day do the greater good her Methodist soul kept telling her would some day make it all worthwhile, only to find that, at the last possible moment, she had fallen one single grinding, humiliating, soul-killing inch short.
And that she had come short because, instead of believing in herself and marrying some small town businessman or college professor content to live in her shadow and perhaps even be in love with her, she had instead done it the old-fashioned, old-world, self-arranged political marriage way, and was now finally forced to accept the awfulness of her choice.
Now hold all that in mind and walk a mile in her shoes.
Imagine that the star you hitched yourself to finally revealed himself as the scum of the earth. This after you spent nearly half a century trying to convince yourself you could one day wipe the stains clean, only to discover that the very voters who so readily forgave him his sins abandoned you in large part because, consciously or otherwise, they managed to convince themselves you–the very first “you” that you should have held on to, the one who was never quite all the way hidden from view–should somehow have not only known better than to keep forgiving him, but than to marry him in the first place.
Imagine realizing that the old “well their sex life is their own business” trope really meant “well HIS sex life is HIS own business…but from you we expected better” all along.
Imagine that you had enough of the Methodist missionary spirit left in you to suspect they might be right.
Imagine you had long ago abandoned your own innate social conservatism for libertinism; your economic liberalism for feudalism; your wariness of radicalism for the cloak of radical chic that finally clung too far from your skin for any genuine radical to trust you, but not far enough for anyone else to believe you could any longer cast if off at will.
Not to mention trading your disdain for corruption for the pettiest, most transparent forms of influence peddling,
Imagine that, in losing one self after another, you had ended in a place where no deal was too shady, so long as it pulled you one step further up a ladder which would only be worth climbing the first rung if you made it all the way to the top.
Imagine discovering, here at the very last, that you were the toughest, smartest, best-positioned-by-history woman to achieve the thing you burned to achieve….and it turned out you had, at the very beginning, chosen the only path that would have led any place but the place you wanted to go.
Imagine that you had chosen the only path that could have led you here, where you have at last gained exactly what the Good Book said you would…
…and where the only song left to sing, is this one.
Amongst other things, I’ll remember 2016 as the year I grew weary of death. Maybe it’s just that time of life for me. Maybe for the country or something. Anyway…
All Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr. did with his life was write more signature songs for more iconic country singers than practically anyone else. I’m sure if I went around counting up, Willie Nelson or Harlan Howard or maybe Putman’s some time partner, Bobby Braddock, would be in the running. In any case the list is short and exalted.
Suffice it to say few non-performers ever had such monumental impact.
Just in case you ever think writing for a song mill isn’t “art” but merely craft or some such, you can ponder this list of the songs he wrote that helped define…
Moe Bandy (and Janie Fricke)…
If you don’t want to listen to the clips, you can get the point by simply perusing the titles…all credited to a man who, when he died this week, left behind his wife of sixty years.
Great artist that he was, I wouldn’t be surprised that he counted that the finer achievement. But I’m glad he took the time to put in a word for the rest of us.
Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.
That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.
I didn’t find it so.
I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.
Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.
And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.
There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!
So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…
..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.
And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….
,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.
That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.
At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”
When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.
So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.
I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.
So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…
or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…
But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…
or completely obscure as this…
And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.
That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.
But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.
Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.
But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.
Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.
Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?
Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.
Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.
Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines. That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.
To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)
So without further adieu:
Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)
Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc. and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.
The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)
Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.
Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)
Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)
Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.
Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.
Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.
Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.
Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)
Raspberries Starting Over (1974)
Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?
Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)
Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.
Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.
Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.
Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.
Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)
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.
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.
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.