In the late 60’s, a handful of men managed to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the blues had no color, or even nationality. The one who, along with the long gone Duane Allman, proved it deepest and truest, was Peter Green, founder of the original Fleetwood Mac.
He died today in a world that is on fire in large part because the lessons of his music remain ignored and discarded. I’m not feeling too good myself, but I pause to remember and reflect. Maybe we should listen this time. Maybe we should even refuse to forget.
I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:
10) The Clash:Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.
It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.
But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.
9) Ringo Starr:Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)
Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One? Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.
8) Clarence Carter:Snatching It Back (1992)
I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?
Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.
What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?
It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.
It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.
7) Bruce Springsteen:Born to Run (1975)
My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”
I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.
6) Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)
You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.
Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.
5) Boz Scaggs:Silk Degrees (1976)
It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.
And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.
4) Jimmy Reed:The Anthology (2011)
Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.
3) The Jackson 5:Anthology (1976)
The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.
So it goes.
2) Earl Lewis and the Channels:New York’s Finest (1990)
Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?
Besides being transported I mean.
1) The Chi-Lites:Greatest Hits (1972)
I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)
An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.
I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.
And I wonder if we really want to.
Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.
When Gregg Allman–of Nashville, Daytona Beach, Macon and Savannah–came back from the West Coast in the late sixties, to join his brother and some friends in yet another attempt to find a place in the rock and roll Cosmos, White Blues was a concept owned by Brits and Yanks.
He immediately gave the newly formed Allman Brothers Band a huge advantage over everyone else who had tried the concept. There had been a number of formalist White Blues guitar players–Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Gregg’s brother Duane–who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues guitarists, while sounding like no one but themselves. Gregg Allman was the first formalist White Blues singer who could match the skill and intensity of the great blues vocalists…while sounding like no one but himself.
Aside from Ronnie Van Zant–of Jacksonville, Florida–he was also the last.
In the manner of singing like a black man, it evidently helps to actually know some black people.
Except for a brief romantic and professional liaison with Cher in the late seventies, who he was at the beginning remained who he was at the end–somebody determined to keep the spirit of what had moved him alive in the modern age. If that made him seem like an anachronism as time went on, it also made him a committed soul. At his best, from the beginning to the end, he embodied the spirit of the Southern Rock he helped invent–and threw off the chains that bind us.
Hope there’s a Skydog Reunion in the works somewhere tonight.
“Street Corner Serenade” Wet Willie (1977) #30 Billboard Recommended source: Southern Rock Gold
By the time Wet Willie released their first effort on Epic Records, the bone-hard Southern rock they had helped bring to prominence was dying out. The form couldn’t survive the death of its two biggest talents. Duane Allman had been killed in a motorcycle accident just as the concept was taking off in 1971. Ronnie Van Zant had gone down in the plane crash that took the heart out what was left in the summer of 1977.
Time for something new–even for a band as tried and true as Wet Willie.
So, a few months after Van Zant’s death, they came up with this weird idea for a record and it became the greatest of its type: The Southern Rock Post-Doo Wop Blue-Eyed Soul Celebration Lament With a Slightly Caribbean Lilt.
Okay, so far as I know, it’s the only record of its type, but it could have withstood some pretty heavy competition. It played wistful or celebratory in its too-brief moment, depending on what you brought to it on a given day.
It still does. It’s the most completely faked record I know of that is also completely true. Wet Willie was from Mobile, Alabama. It’s a big enough city to have an Italian contingent. Still, I rather doubt any “street corner” singing Jimmy Hall and the boys may have done involved guys named Guido.
Except maybe in their own imaginations. And, since imagination was in short supply on the radio by December of 1977 when this was released, one could overlook a few incongruities. It played true back then, for the five minutes it was on the radio. It plays true now, when you have to dig it up on YouTube or Amazon.
And if you think a smile was cheap in those days, you either didn’t live them or don’t remember. A hundred more like “Street Corner Serenade” and we still couldn’t have restarted the revolution. But hey, a hundred more like it and we might not have needed to…
Fans of country music of a certain vintage aren’t likely to forget Dolly Parton is a stone cold genius, no matter how hard she tries to hide it.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if even we don’t forget just a little.
One reason we might is that country albums of a certain vintage are not always easy to come by in the digital age. There are certainly gaps in CD-era reissues of blues, soul and pop (even a few here and there in rock). But outside of gospel, no important genre of American music has been as neglected as LP releases of country music stars of the sixties and seventies.
Thanks to the measure of her hard-earned (and harder kept) fame, Dolly’s been better served than most. Of her first ten albums–the ones that basically made her reputation–half have been released on CD one time or another, though by an assortment of companies with what I assume is varying degrees of care and quality.
The only one that’s made it to my collection so far is Coat of Many Colors, which, thanks to a knockdown sale in the local mall and my once a decade culling of my trade-ables, came to hand as part of a 2010-release three-pack with a couple of slightly later LPs, My Tennessee Mountain Home and Jolene.
All of that dealing brought me, at a pittance, the Duane Allman box I wrote about recently, a George Strait box I’ve been chasing for twenty years (waiting for the right price, though now that I’ve heard it, I confess it would have been worth paying full), the John Adams HBO miniseries (about which I may have something to say later) and a few various and sundry other items.
So I’ve been kind of busy. And Coat of Many Colors is the only one of the three Dolly discs I’ve listened to yet.
But it starts with two songs she wrote devoted to that hoariest of country traditions: Mother.
That’s a subject from which you wouldn’t have thought anybody could wring anything new, even in 1971.
You’d have been wrong. Because the two songs were this…
And finding gold in the dust?
Well, that’s just what geniuses do.
The completists at the Bear Family recently released all of Dolly’s duets with Porter Wagoner. Here’s hoping they, or somebody, gets on to the solo stuff soon. There’s a fine box set available, but hearing even this one album–led off by two cuts available on at least a hundred comps–reminds me that what’s available is barely the tip of the iceberg.
“My only sadness is that it didn’t continue until the day I die.”
Lulu (on her time at Atlantic)
By the time Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was signed to the Atco subsidiary of the American soul giant Atlantic Records in the fall of 1969 she was twenty years old and entering the third distinctive phase of her recording career.
In the first phase, which started when she acquired her stage name, Lulu, and fronted a band called the Luvvers, she had made the journey from Glasgow to London and become a British sensation with a knockout cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (her version charted perennially on the British charts for the next three decades).
She was all of fifteen and, despite an occasionally ragged relationship with the beat that was common among the era’s youngest rockers (among true youngsters, only Brenda Lee consistently sang with anything like old-fashioned assurance–rock n’ roll was never as easy as the masters made it sound or the haters wanted you to think), pretty close to being the hardest soul singer the Isles produced. Her enthusiasm occasionally got ahead of her talent in those days but there were some scorching highlights. Her ballad singing was assured from the beginning (she did a particularly lovely job of re-imagining Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night,” as a torch song). And her knockout, hard-rock covers of “Dream Lover” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” are a long way ahead of pretty much anything the young Mick Jagger did in his pre-“Satisfaction” days. Say what you want about Lulu covering the classics but at least she never sounded like she had learned American English phonetically.
That said, the early period was uneven to say the least. Between production values that were oft-times barely professional (a bit of a general problem in England at the time), dicey material (“Choc Ice”…really?) and lack of a clear direction, the voice seldom got its due even on her best records.
That changed somewhat when she signed with Mickie Most (probably England’s top producer of the period), landed an acting gig in the Sidney Poitier vehicle To Sir With Love and entered her second phase with a bang.
The title song of To Sir With Love, written by a friend at the by-then seventeen-year-old singer’s request when she refused to sing what the studio had in mind, became Billboard’s official #1 record of 1967 after it was released as a B-side and American dee-jays flipped it. It was also one of the best sung records of the greatest era for vocal music we’re likely to know. One might have thought that Most would know what to do from there–namely run off a series of hit singles, as he had done for Herman’s Hermits, Donovan and the Animals previously (talk about covering some ground), and would do for Hot Chocolate later on.
Instead–and despite a handful of genuinely wonderful records which didn’t do much commercially–he steered her toward ever more banal material, finally climaxing with the already world-famous Lulu actually winning the Eurovision Song contest (usually reserved for those still chasing their fortune) for 1969 with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which the singer herself has occasionally–and with some justification–referred to as possibly the worst song ever written.
Unlike most of the really good records she and Most had made together, it was a substantial hit, at least in England and Europe.
The disconnect between quality and success guaranteed a lot of sleepless nights, crying jags, and the absolute certainty that she would not renew her contract with Most when it ended a few months after the Eurovision win.
While all that was going on, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, the only female British singer who was a talent-match for Lulu (and who was, perhaps understandably, going by “Dusty Springfield”) had signed with Atlantic Records, a label known mostly for deep soul acts, and gone South to make an album which came to be called Dusty In Memphis. In addition to being one of the greatest albums ever made–“vocal” or otherwise–Dusty In Memphis produced a big hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” and set Atlantic mogul Jerry Wexler searching for more of the same.
It turned out to be an artistically satisfying venture which bore relatively little commercial fruit. Eventually, Jackie DeShannon, Betty LaVette and Cher would each get her turn. And Jackie and Cher at least got their records released (with Jackie’s being a classic in its own right…I haven’t heard Cher’s Atlantic sessions, though they eventually got a CD release on Rhino Handmade). Betty had to wait another thirty years and achieve an unlikely late-career discovery by the Public-At-Large for her fine sides to even see the light of day.
Lots of amazing music then.
But Lulu was the next in line and the music she recorded between the fall of 1969 and the summer of 1972 constitutes a body of work that bears comparison to anything that was going on anywhere in the period.
It probably helped that Wexler and others (Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, like that) still had the wind of Springfield’s success at their backs when they all went back South (Muscle Shoals this time…with Duane Allman sitting in) to record New Routes.
The album concedes nothing to Dusty in Memphis except that Dusty’s is perfect and New Routes has a misguided version of “Mr. Bojangles” that features an awkward gender rewrite which pretty much undermines an otherwise great sounding record. (i.e., Lulu couldn’t very well pretend to be sharing a jail cell with Bojangles, so they are in….a park! Ouch.)
But that album or the next (Melody Fair, recorded in Miami with another crack southern session unit, the Dixie Flyers), both long afterwards available only on reasonably scarce vinyl (my used copy of New Routes came with a sticker that read “Duane Allman!!!”…cool people, having received their values from the crit-illuminati need to know why a price has been boosted from the usual $0.99 to $2.99!!!), are, amazingly, not the entire point of the great 2007 package Lulu:The Atco Sessions, 1969-72.
There you get two discs–the first covering the two released albums, the second collecting various singles, alternates and unreleased material.
As a listening experience, it’s of a piece. Heartbreaking for itself (there is no more plaintive voice and it was never more consistently plaintive than here…you can ask Lulu fans like Aretha Franklin and Al Green if you need further testimony) and for the different kind of break it so definitively represents–a kind of last look back before the rise of the machines.
This package is the sound of a singer who had already successfully traversed hard-edged rock and R&B and classy pop and was now remarried to her first love: straight soul music.
From this distance, it’s easy to hear just how fragile the moment was. Between bombastic rock and sleek dance music, glorious though much of it would be, amplifiers and synthesizers were setting the stage for the re-caging of the liberating human voices which rock and soul had brought to the center of Pop Culture–which, as I occasionally note here, was already the only culture America had left.
I don’t think you necessarily need that context to hear the fundamental sadness-tinged-with-liberating-joy that characterized these sessions. But knowing the context makes that quality inescapable.
Maybe because she had such an oddly shaped career (she went from these sessions to a fling with David Bowie–studio only–that produced a few truly great sides but, again, no real overarching vision) Lulu is a bit of an odd duck historically: a respected singer who isn’t quite revered; a commercial singer whose hits are strung out here and there over a couple of decades; a fine live performer who was always in the moment but rarely on top of it.
But she was also the kind of singer who used to arrive on the charts on a regular basis–distinctive, soulful, possessed of a genuine ache that never descended into phony angst or belting for the sake of belting–and do not arrive at all anymore.
And her time at Atlantic, at least, was priceless. She’s not the only one who regrets that it didn’t continue until the day she died.
So, beginning with a track that was straight and hard enough to fit right in on the (equally priceless) What It Is! funk box set a few years back and proceeding through the soul and pop part of our evening before finishing with a lovely and moving homage to shag haircuts: