10) The Miracles Greatest Hits From the Beginning (1965)
Even after the old three record Anthology from the 70’s and one of the greatest box sets ever from the 90’s, this is still part of every basic record library. Nowhere else can you experience the unadulterated joy and pain of the young Smokey Robinson quite so purely or all at once or so connected to his (and Motown’s) doo wop roots. When you’re listening, it’s impossible to believe that he actually got better.
9) Various Artists Atlantic Jazz: Kansas City (1986)
This was part of an extensive series the Atlantic label issued in the 1980’s to exploit their considerable Jazz catalog. It’s the only one I picked up along the way and this is probably only the second time I’ve listened to it. Put it this way: It has me considering tracking down the whole series.
8) Burning Spear Rocking Time (1974)
This is the album Winston Rodney released just before his monumental Marcus Garvey which, especially in its double-cd tandem Garvey’s Ghost (which Greil Marcus once called surf music with slave ships on the horizon, a description that will never be bettered) is one of the essential albums of all time. My copy’s on the original Studio One label and I can’t say whether the scratchy quality is from a primitive recording or just crappy vinyl. Somehow it adds to the music’s ghostly quality. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the nerve to listen close.
7) Jerry Butler The Best of Jerry Butler (1970)
A talisman of my life. If more people could say the same, the world would be a better place, because from this distance the Iceman sounds like a man trying to heal a world that pointedly and specifically refused the medicine and opted for nihilism instead. Wonder how that’s working out…
6) Jackie Wilson Jackie Sings the Blues (1960)
A recent discovery and a miracle. The only overlap with his various excellent comps is “Doggin’ Around.” I always wondered what a whole album of Jackie in “Doggin’ Around” mode would sound like. Now I know: Epochal.
5) Various Artists Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)
A trash metal soundtrack to a desultory movie about a desultory time, broken by occasional nods to nascent hip hop…And elevated to permanent relevance by two startling sides: LL Cool J’s sly, menacing “Going Back to Cali” and the Bangles complete re-imagining of Paul Simon’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” as a hard rock anthem to die for, both of which evoke the hellish landscape of 80’s America far better than the movie did.
4) Various Artists Beserkley Chartbusters Volume I (1975)
The most famous power pop compilation from the most famous power pop label. Not bad but I can never help remembering that Raspberries had already taken this concept as far as it could go so it mostly makes me want to listen to Raspberries.
3) Jefferson Airplane Volunteers (1969)
This has been in heavy rotation on my turntable of late. I can’t imagine why. What with the proof that 1969 never really ended because we never really resolved its contradictions all over the news yet again maybe I keep thinking that if this is never going to provide the answers it will at least lead me back to a clarification of the questions. Not bad for a bunch of Limo Libs. Still the first album I’d play for a youngster who wanted to begin understanding the Sixties.
2) Spirit The Best of Spirit (1973)
They made good albums, but this is still my go-to, maybe just because, in 1979, when I bought it, it was the only thing available in the malls of America. Or maybe just because it’s great on its own. They didn’t really need conceptual LPs. They were a conceptual band and they had that one quality that makes any artist prone to being under-appreciated: There was no one else like them. Get your ass to the animal zoo indeed.
1) Dusty Springfield Golden Hits (1966)
One of these days I’m going to start a category for Perfect Albums or maybe just Perfect Things. This might be Exhibit A. My copy survived the Great Jefferson Arms Apartments Flood of 1981. (Fair enough as the flood was technically started by me–personally I blame whoever reversed the threads on the hot water handle in the bathroom sink, which made it a dangerous proposition to leave for work when the water had been cut off in the middle of shaving. Probably because they were shutting down a flood somewhere else in the complex….And I thought the roaches were bad before! I did feel bad about inadvertently terrorizing the cocker spaniel next door. The cute girl who owned him was at work too.) I could afford an undamaged cover now I guess, but somehow it would feel like messing with karma to replace anything that has spent forty years making me smile.
‘Til next time….Hope this Popsicle stand hasn’t burned to the ground by then!
I doubt any musician played on as many records that meant as much to me as Reggie Young, the Memphis-to-Nashville guitarist who passed away Jan. 17, at 82, leaving behind a legacy of more great records in both places than anyone can count.
Rather than gild the lily (there are plenty of obits on-line that list his numerous hits and the famous artists he backed), I’ll just say this. When it came time for Rock and Roll America to face the reality of all that was about to be lost and somebody sang a line to the guitars coming through to soothe me, it was no coincidence the guitar was Reggie Young’s.
Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, the Mainstream Media.
Not one person said or wrote anything unpredictable. However they felt about Roe vs. Wade going in determined how they perceived the sainthood/psychopathy of Christine Ford or Brett Kavanaugh. One hundred percent and triple down.
Here’s what I saw:
Ford is a stellar example of modern America’s tendency to produce middle-aged humans who have the mental, emotional and psychological development of yesteryear’s average thirteen-year-old. Maybe something happened to her, maybe not. Maybe she believes something happened, maybe not. I don’t know and neither do you. But if she really holds all those teaching positions that have been advertised (and there now seems to be some debate about that), then she’s the most serious condemnation of modern academia yet produced.
Kavanaugh is a self-righteous prig with a selective memory. If confirmed, he’ll fit in nicely with the eight goons who already decide everything and, should it turn out he’s an alky who already knows how to hold his pinkie while giving the secret handshake, so much the better. If the Democrats had any savvy at all, they would have come out of the hearing, gone to the nearest microphone and had some spokesperson other than Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal (the Senator who was designated to reproach Kavanaugh for telling white lies–there’s no way I could make that up) say: “You know, when it comes to believability, he reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton…without the oily charm.” They, of course, did not do this, because they are morons.
Which is why Ford and Kavanaugh both came off somewhat better than any senator questioning them. Sure, they both told some whoppers, but only at about the rate Donald Trump does. That’s the new norm. Don’t bother getting used to it because there are Senators and Justices lying awake all over Washington tonight, thinking up ways to go lower.
No doubt, they’ll succeed. Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.
Have no fear, though. The Republic will grind on.
I know because, just to keep me sane, Dusty told me so:
“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”
(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)
There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.
Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.
Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).
Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.
Else too perfectly of her time.
If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.
By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.
Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.
And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.
All within eight years.
Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.
1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.
It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).
For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.
And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.
In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.
It is hard to be one of anything.
It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.
Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.
Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.
Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :
To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.
If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.
Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.
And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.
Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.
She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?
Not these people surely….
That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.
All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.
Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!
It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.
Death and Sex in other words.
You up for that?
If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.
You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?
It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…
was only playing around.
Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.
I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.
There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.
This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.
At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.
I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.
I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.
But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.
What Sandy Denny produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.
Alas, 1969 was the peak.
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.
In any case, down she went.
There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.
There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.
Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.
Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.
One more victim of the 60s. then.
I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.
Philly Soul: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and the Story of Brotherly Love (1966–1976)
This might be a bit of a cheat, and, to tell the truth, if I put Gamble and Huff in the “single artist” category, this would probably be my favorite there, too. But Various Artists feels more appropriate even if the dazzling variety heard here was guided by a common vision.
However defined, a box set should be a great listening experience first and foremost and one that can be taken in all at once. My own “all at once” has a limit of around 3-4 hours. The single greatest box ever is probably this one…
But, at 6 discs and well over seven hours running time, it’s impossible to take in without setting aside the whole day. Rhino made plenty of other definitive genre boxes: for garage bands, rockabilly, surf music, doo wop, even a box of girl group rarities that never quits and comes in the greatest–or at least grooviest–ever package…
All of these are essential and will become more so as time marches along and memories of Rock and Roll America fade.
But Philly Soul has an advantage besides its relative brevity (3 discs, about three-and-a-half hours of music) and the cohesion of a strong vision. Call it an extra level of awareness. The difference between fighting the good fight in the disintegrating seventies versus riding the wave of the (mostly) optimistic sixties.
It offers a concept then, and, like any other concept album, a great box should also take you on a journey. And, if the compilers, not to mention the original artists, get it right, that journey, by dint of its sheer length, can be more complex and nuanced than any single album.
The danger is that it might quit on you.
Philly Soul doesn’t quit. It wanders now and then, perhaps in keeping with the artists’ guiding vision and the contradictions they meant to both raise….
But it doesn’t quit.
It almost can’t.
For one thing, the story’s too good: Black America coming to terms with itself and America in general.
Like the narrative it supports–gliding under and around all the slices of black (especially the emerging black bourgeoisie) life–it ebbs and flows. But with each wave it creeps a little closer to shore and, when it gets there, it doesn’t let you just stop and take a look around. It cries out for an ending that only the culture could have provided…and laments the absence of the clean triumph the best music here has so clearly earned, even as it questions the likelihood of justice, and the inherent naivete of expecting a reward, an acknowledgment, a resolution, all along the way.
That the culture failed to provide such an ending–and whether it was a near miss or a pipe dream all along is a question even Philly Soul cannot answer–is a tragedy that, upon sufficient reflection, rides the shoulder of every cut here, from the triumphal ebullience of Kenny and Leon’s first big hit, the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart,”…
All the way to Bunny Sigler’s somber, almost painful, re-imagining of the “Love Train.”
Along the way, themes develop: Brotherly Love of course, but also the haves trying not to be had by the have-nots….
The black family’s stand against the dark forces that would, ultimately, undermine it..
and, of course, celebrations of the beat, the beat, the beat…
It all developed from a multiracial vision, in keeping with the last vestiges of the preceding era’s hopes–the first disc features not only the Soul Survivors’ impeccable blue-eyed soul but soaring sides from Dusty Springfield and Laura Nyro, and, of course, it’s all underpinned by a hand-picked house band that looked liked this…
Mother, Sister, Father, Brother indeed.
But, beginning near the end of the first disc, there’s no question the sound in your ear–and the vision in your mind–became blacker. Hard not to when the middle passage (end of first disc to beginning of third) amounts to a cutting contest between the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Teddy Pendergrass…with interludes that range from the hardest soul….
that a pause for a spirit of reflection, long since earned–and a retreat from the top of the charts, first gradual, then sudden–was almost the only way left.
The one record that might have answered “Wake Up Everybody”–the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a close-to-the-bone account of the real Middle Passage–is the one essential cut missing from this life-affirming “pure listening” experience that doubles as the greatest documentary we’ll ever have of the moment we flew closest to the sun.
[NOTE: This is an interview that Mary Weiss gave to Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in 2007 upon their release of Weiss’s first music in forty years. Weiss has not made any records since and the interview disappeared from Norton’s website a couple of years ago, apparently the victim of some serious weather damage to their offices. I’ve noticed that the links I once provided to that interview still draw a fair amount of interest and I’ve tried to contact Norton several times to see if they are ever planning to repost the interview. As I’ve not heard from them, I assume they are either not planning to do so or are seriously backlogged. I’m reposting the interview here because, even sans the cool graphics and trove of wonderful photos (a few of which I tracked down for some relevant passages here), it’s one of the most important interviews ever given by a rock and roll singer. If you’ve followed along on this site for a while, you know how I feel about the Shangri-Las, but, more to the point, you know how I feel about the often ridiculous narratives that were imposed on them–often by the usual well-intentioned sorts paving the usual roads to hell–during Mary’s forty years of silence. By extension, many of those same false narratives were imposed on the entire Girl Group era (another ongoing concern of this blog), and there has never been more de-bunking assembled in one place than this wide-ranging interview. If Norton re-posts this in the future I will re-link to it. If they request me to take this down, I will do so. In the meantime, I’ll post it here in the interests of historical preservation. It needs to be available somewhere. (And, of course, I encourage everyone to consider buying Norton’s products, especially Weiss’s still valuable CD, Dangerous Game, which now seems likely to be the last we will hear from her on record.)]
(MW is Mary Weiss, BM is Billy Miller, ML is Miriam Linna…I’ve retained the original’s sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation, etc.)
MW: Do you want to start with the Shangri stuff?
ML: Let’s start at the very beginning. Where were you born?
MW: Jamaica, Queens, New York. Jamaica hospital.
BM: Wow, me too. Same hospital!
ML: How about some family background?
MW: I grew up in Queens, Cambria Heights. My father died when I was six weeks old. I’m the youngest of three kids. My brother George was eight years older than me. He passed away in 1996. And my sister Liz was in the Shangri-Las with me.
ML: What drew you to the music?
MW: I became interested in music at about four or five years old. When I was a kid, I loved the Ink Spots and then with rock n’ roll, I loved the Everly Brothers and Neil Sedaka. My brother was much older, so I listened to all of the records he had. He was an Elvis freak. There were guys that sang on the street corner in my neighborhood. I would listen to them and I’d sing with them sometimes.
ML: Do you remember when you started singing.
MW: I always sang, as far back as I can remember. I sang in the church choir. I was in every shcool play and sang in all of them.
ML: Did you go to rock n’ roll shows?
MW: The only rock n’ roll show I attended was in grammar school. Our class wen to Freedomland and the Everly Brothers played. They did so much for everybody regarding harmony. By the time I was fifteen, I was always in the studio, so I didn’t get to go to shows at that time. I really didn’t go to concerts until much later.
ML: What were the local hangouts in your neighborhood for teenagers?
MW: It was a place called Ed’s. We all hung out there. There were all these groups of kids–Ed’s group, Bill’s group, Reno’s group, the 225th Street group and we all meet there, four or five groups of neighborhood kids.
ML: Who were you listening to?
MW: We’d listen to Babalu and Cousin Brucie on WABC. When I was a teenager, I bought all my records at Korvettes. They had the best record department and they were cheap.
BM: Great store! They’d print their own charts every week.
ML: How did you meet the Ganser sisters?
MW: I met the twins in grammar school although they went to public school and I went to Catholic school–so much for organized religiou! They lived a few blocks away. We hung out at their house and began singing together there and on the p layground. We all had an interest in music and our voiced blended well. At that time, we were really pursuing our own sond. We all went to Andrew Jackson High School for a while.
ML: Did you call yourselves the Shangri-Las right from the start?
MW: You know we didn’t have a name initially. We were going to make a record and we said “We better get a name–fast!” We were driving on Long Island and saw a restaurant called the Shangri-La. That’s where we got the name.
BM: Were you the lead singer from the start?
MW: Actually, my sister Liz was at first. On the first demo, on “Wishing Well,” that’s Liz. She actually sang both sides (“Hate To Say I Told You So”). She also sang “Shout.” “Wishing Well” was actually our demo and they played around with it and released it.
BM: Spokane Records. That was Artie Ripp, right?
MW: Right. Kama Sutra Productions. That was very short lived.
BM: I love that first record you made, “Simon Says” with the Lonnie Mack type guitar and the Bo Diddley beat.
MW: Liz was the lead singer on that one, too.
BM: You were singing at hops and dances, who was booking you when you started?
MW: Before we went to Red Bird, we had a manager names Tony Michaels.
BM: Now you met George “Shadow” Morton through Bob Lewis, Babalu from WABC.
MW: Right. Bob Lewis. That’s where I met George, at Bob’s apartment. Tony Michaels took us over there so he could hear us sing and get his opinion. George was there, I don’t know why he was there, but that’s how we met him. True story.
ML: In a nutshell, can you describe Shadow for us?
MW: George is one of the most colorful, unique people I’ve ever met in my life. Extremely talented. He used to be very difficult to get into a room at a scheduled time, but a brilliant man.
BM: An amazing producer.
MW: I was with George at some arena show when he met Phil Spector.
BM: Wow! What was that like?
MW: Oil and water! That’s all I can say. I was not happy to be there.
BM: There’s a 45 by a group called the Beatle-Ettes produced by a George Morton…
MW: I know what you’re going to ask and that’s not the Shangri-Las. They say a group called the Bon Bons is the Shangri-Las. That thing is everywhere. I see it all the time and go “Who the hell are they?”
BM: It doesn’t make any sense because you and Shadow pretty much started together.
MW: Right. You got me! I have no idea where people get this stuff.
BM: Did Shadow make any plans for you right away?
MW: No, not until we did the demo for “Remember.” Billy Joel played piano on it. George said he had a phone conversation with Billy years later and Billy said, “You owe me $67. You never paid me scale!”
BM: Was the demo really over seven minutes long like legend has it?
MW: I don’t think it was quite that long, it’s been exaggerated over the years, but it was longer than the actual record. At the time, it was unheard of to extend a record to more than a few minutes. That seemed abnormal to me.
BM: Still, it seems that it would be weird for Shadow to go that far out on a limb his first time out, with so much at stake.
MW: It would.
BM: So the whole reason for making the demo was that George had told Jeff Barry at Red Bird that he was a songwriter even though he’d never written anything before. In your words what transpired to bring all of this about? What exactly was the story?
MW: As far as “Remember (Walkin in the Sand)” goes, I think you should ask George Morton. My involvement with the song was in the studio.
ML: It’s a complex song.
MW: Initially it was done instrumentally and kind of evolved. I like that song a lot.
BM: And you did that at Mirasound in Manhattan?
MW: We did most of them there. We did use Ultra-Sonic sometimes. We did most of our demos there.
BM: My Boy Scout troop went to Ultra-Sonic in 1965 to see a real recording studio. I was really into it until the engineer goes, “You boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” That’s really not the kind of thing to tell a room full of teenage boys if you want them to keep paying attention.
MW: That wasn’t nice. It could have been fun!
BM: Now you tell me! The Shangri-Las first hit at the start of the British Invasion. That’s a mighty tough uphill battle.
MW: Absolutely. Look at the Beach Boys.
ML: When “Remember” hit, you started playing right away….
MW: Right away, yes. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre. I was traveling all the time. When I wasn’t doing that I was in the studio. When I wasn’t doing that I was rehearsing.
ML: Were you still in high school.
MW: I missed out on doing any real high school stuff. I went to professional school where you could leave if you had to tour. It was necessary. When you do television shows when you’re a kid, they put a tutor backstage in the corner with a little book. It’s the law. Kinda strange. Paul Jabara was my closest friend there. He wrote “Last Dance” for Donna Summer. Paul had the greatest sense of humor. I wish he was still around. I miss him to this day. I’d tag along to auditions with him. Once he stood on stage, pulled out his sheet music for the piano player–about ten feet long–and broke into “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I sat in the back of theatre and was laughing so hard I was crying.
ML: When the Shangri-Las first became successful, did neighborhood friends act differently towards you?
MW: It’s a catch-22. They act differently towards you and meanwhile, you’re still hitting that handball and hanging out, but you don’t fit in anymore. It’s them that’s changed, not you. At the time, you think, “Oh, my God!”
ML: Were the twins like you? Was there a shared Shangri-Las persona?
MW: Mary Ann and Margie were more assertive, actually, as far as their public persona. Both of them were much gruffer than me. They both had great senses of humor. They were pranksters.
BM: What’d they do?
MW: Mostly stupid stuff. Margie added an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to Marvin Gaye’s door and took the ‘s’ off his last name so his door read “Marvin’s Gaye”.
ML: Did the twins have similar personalities?
MW: They were very similar personality-wise. Margie was more aggressive than Mary Ann. When my sister wasn’t in the group and it was just me and the twins, it was like “Hello? What do you mean ‘majority rules’?!” It was very devastating for Margie when Mary Ann died.
BM: Your sister didn’t tour at first, but she still sang on all the records, right?
MW: Yes, the four of us were on the records. Liz is an extremely talented singer. We’ve been through so much together. Liz looked like Bardot when she was young. She still lives near me now and has been happily married for 25 years.
ML: You went straight from playing neighborhood hops to big stages and national TV. Were you terrified?
MW: It didn’t faze me much. Maybe it should have (laughs).
BM: Those Murray the K shows at the Brooklyn Fox must have been brutal.
MW: They were real brutal. From early morning until late at night. Seven sets, back to back. You have a record on the charts–there you are! I did the Cow Palace and I don’t know how many big arenas. Right after “Remember” came out, James Brown hired us to do a Coliseum show in Texas. They had signs put up COLORED GIRLS’ and WHITE GIRLS’ bathrooms and I got in a huge fight with a cop because I used the black women’s bathroom and he drew his gun on me. I was absolutely amazed. This is backstage in a Coliseum and the white bathroom is on the entire other side of the floor. I really had to go and then get onstage!
BM: Is that where the song “What’s a Girl Supposed to Do” got its inspiration.
MW: (laughs) I’ve never seen anything like that. What surprised me more was the other women in the bathroom looking at me with their mouths open. Earlier, when we did the afternoon sound check, James Brown’s mouth fell open! He turned around and looked at me–here’s this little blonde girl. He thought we were black. All the other performers were black and we were very nervous because we didn’t know how the audience was going to respond. It turned out to be a great show!
BM: That’s wild.
MW: We worked with James a few time. I was at his house once. He lived in St. Albans, the next town over from Cambria Heights. He had “JB” on the gate. We were just BS’ing there, basically. I liked him.
BM: There’s a story of you putting Murray the K’s motorcycle on the roof of the Fox.
MW: Come on, Murray didn’t even have a motorcycle.
BM: But you did hit him in the face with a pie onstage at the Fox.
MW: That was long overdue! (laughs) One fun thing we’d do at the Fox, was if there was a really good group onstage, we’d grab a microphone behind the back curtain and there’s be four part harmony going on like a chorus. It was wonderful!
BM: You played a bunch with the Zombies.
MW: They were great guys. Still are. I just saw them play at B.B. King’s. They’re still great! I wish them the best in everything they do.
BM: What other groups did you pal around with?
MW: I didn’t get to pal around with anybody. We were so busy. It was very different then. Now these singers say how rough they have it. They don’t have a clue. Ride in a bus every night. Sleep every other night. See how that feels. People don’t realize how hard it was back then. There were no monitors at the time. Sometimes you were screaming just to hear yourself singing. The Dick Clark Caravans, they were grueling shows. Every other night you’d sleep in a hotel. Sleep on the bus, then you’d have to get up and look perky. It’s exhausting. But, there was one great thing at the end of the Dick Clark tours, because he’d have Caravans going all over the country and we’d all mee in one place and they’d have like a Battle of the Bands type thing with all the stars. Those were cool shows. You’d meet up in one arena, do one big show and then we’d all go home.
BM: Sometimes there were four of you and at various times, Liz, Margie and Mary Ann were off the road…
MW: And I was the one constant member. That was it. There’s lots of BS written about our group. I’ve seen it written that we missed concerts, that the other girls did some shows without me. That’s simply not true. I never missed a single show. I couldn’t take a break. Everyone got exhausted and could take time off. Touring was exhausting. Most of the times when I woke up, I didn’t know what state I was in. Too many buses, too many flights. Touring was a blur.
BM: Red Bird was owned by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and George Goldner. What were your impressions of them.
MW: We were crazy about George Goldner. In fact, at the end of our first year on Red Bird, we bought George a huge television set, at that time, they didn’t have them that big everywhere. We gave it to him with a big gold plaque on the front as a thank you present. It said, “George Goldner, Thank You, The Shangri-Las”. It was a gesture from us. I don’t think he got enough credit for anything at Red Bird. He was a kid who never grew up. Riding around in a Cadillac with the top down. He was like a very large child. I loved him.
BM: And Leiber and Stoller?
MW: Leiber and Stoller are wonderful people. They brought a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to all their artists. I have a lot of respect for them both, but they didn’t work with us directly. They worked on songs with George Morton, then he worked with us.
BM: “Leader of the Pack” was the second Red Bird record and the biggest one. There really wasn’t a motorcycle in the studio on the session, was there?
MW: I’ve heard that, too.
BM: Yeah, because you hear it roaring away. Where did it go?
MW: Studio B. (laughs)
BM: That guy on the album cover, was he anybody special?
MW: Absolutely not! And he sure didn’t look like any biker I knew!
ML: On the Red Bird recordings, they double-tracked your voice sometimes….
MW: Yes, on a few.
BM: That was quite a team that you had in the studio at Red Bird – (producer) Shadow Morton, (engineer) Brooks Arthur and (arranger) Artie Butler.
MW: Absolutely! I know. You can’t ever give them enough credit. The Shangri-Las was one of Brooksie’s first things. That’s why we’re friends to this day. Brooks Arthur is extremely talented in so many areas. Artie Butler is one of the most brilliant arrangers I’ver ever heard. I love both those guys.
BM: Those sessions were pretty monumental. Would you come in and sing or would you get more involved in the whole process?
MW: Oh, I always stayed there. I stayed for every mixing session.
ML: Even before you had to sing your parts?
MW: Right. I was there for every step.
BM: Would they listen to your input?
MW: Oh, sure.
BM: How much free rein did the group have on vocal arrangements? On something like say, “The Train Fom Kansas City,” that introduction is extraordinary.
MW: OK, on “The Train From Kansas City,” I worked hard with Jeff (Barry) on that. You can hear the flavor to it.
BM: Unmistakably the Shangri-Las.
MW: Our group, I mean even for that time period, the harmonies were unique. The blending of the voices was unique.
BM: Like “Out in the Streets”– flawless record. That’s my absolute favorite Shangri-Las record.
MW: That’s my favorite, too.
BM: Just curious, what would be your five favorite Shangri-Las records?
MW: “Out in the Streets,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” “Past, Present and Future” and “The Train From Kansas City.” I also like the Mercury record “I’ll Never Learn.”
BM: “Out in the Streets” and “Give Us Your Blessings,” you look in the national charts, and they weren’t real huge smash hits, but here in New York, those records were monsters. You heard them everywhere.
MW: Yes, they were biggest here. Definitely.
BM: Did you know that “Out in the Streets” was the last song played on WINS before they switched from rock ‘n’ roll to all news?
MW: Yes, I did. I thought that was quite touching. Very neat. There were a lot of great Djs then. They seemed to be more involved than nowadays where it’s all programmed.
BM: I dig “Heaven Only Knows” a lot.
MW: Really? Why’s that?
BM: I guess when I boutht “Give Us Your Blessings” as a kid and I got a great B-side, it was like getting an extra record.
MW: Oh, I hated it when the B-sides on records stunk. We always wanted both sides to be cool.
BM: Your flips were all killers–“Heaven Only Knows,” “The Train From Kansas City,” “Dressed in Black”…
ML: That deliberate spoken part….
MW: I always thought “Past, Present and Future” was a unique sounding record. And everybody that’s written about it said it was about rape. That was news to me! At the time, you need to remember, people are forgetting about the teenage angst. When somebody breaks your heart, you don’t want anyone near you. Things are very different now. Kids grow up younger and younger.
ML: Right. In the Shangri-Las, you had young voices singing about pretty heavy emotional stuff. It was like “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” You don’t have to relate to adult themes.
MW: When you’re a kid, who hasn’t felt like that? When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it’s very traumatic.
ML: Especially having a girl’s voice saying it. Other girls can relate, like “I have real feelings.”
MW: I thought we all felt like that.
BM: And your approach is so powerful. It sounds like you’re crying by the end of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
MW: I was crying. That whole sentiment…it’s kinda funny because at the time I really didn’t talk to my mother at all.
BM: Your vocal delivery on “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and “Past, Present and Future” was very personal, very intimate.
MW: The studio is a very private place. I always thought it should be. Actuall, at one Shangri-Las session, Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. She was pregnant at the time. I was extremely impressed that she came. I would have been very nervous if I had known in advance that she was going to be there. She’s a wonderful talent and a great person.
BM: Who’s that singing the lead vocal on “I’m Blue.”
MW: Mary Ann.
BM: What do you remember about “Right Now and Not Later?”
MW: Not a whole hell of a lot! (laughs)
BM: Were there any songs that the Shangri-Las recorded for Red Bird that never got released?
ML: You must have been excited when your first album came out.
MW: All this stuff is exciting. Don’t get me wrong if you’re not getting that impression. It’s wonderful stuff when you open BILLBOARD and you’ve got two pages. “There it is! All right!!”
ML: Were the Red Bird sessions specifically for singles or did you try a few things and saw what clicked?
MW: One song most of the time, especially the larger sessions like “Remember” or “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.” The strings on that? I love them. Those were huge sessions with the room full of musicians.
BM: When rock videos started appearing, I always thought they could never capture what the Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton put into my imagination. Since I first heard “Remember,” I always pictured it all taking place at Long Beach on Long Island, for some reason.
MW: I did, too. Later, I pictured it in Florida. When we went to England we found, the British spent more time setting up everything as far as television goes. They’re meticulous. I walk in the studio and the entire soundstage was filled with sand and a giant grandfather clock for one song. I just could not believe it. It was beautiful. Dusty was on that show.
BM: Dusty Springfield?
MW: Yes, Dusty is an absolutely amazing talent. The Shangri-Las were in London doing Top of the Pops and Ready! Steady! Go! Dusty was having a very large party in her flat. It started out all civilized, nice French doors and antique desks, but she liked to start food fights. And she started one and I’m hiding under this lovely French desk with her manager and fish and food are flying by! They were actually throwing pies later in the night. So Mary Annd goes to put her boots on and they were filled with fish! Dusty was a kinky girl, but a true talent. But, Mary Ann got even with Dusty. She waited and waited and the next time we were with Dusty at the Brooklyn Fox, Mary Ann put fish in Dusty’s shoes. And that’s called….payback! (laughs)
MW: Dusty also flung crockery at the Fox. There was this place where she bought a ton of cheap crockery. We learned the fine art of throwing plates there. Stand at one end of the corridor and fling it with all your might. It makes a loud crash and gets rid of the stress. Parts of Dusty were very self-destructive, but the other side of her was so much fun. I’ll always think of her fondly, mo matter what anybody writes about her. The world will remember her talent. I’ll always remember her laughter, the fine art of crockery throwing….and her talent!
ML: Your records were pretty notorious right from the start.
MW: Look at “Leader.” It was banned in Britain. What was there to ban?
ML: In England there was a lot of trouble between the Mods and the Rockers. That’s why “Leader of the Pack” was probably banned.
MW: I was so proud. I was a Rocker!
MW: I got off the plane dressed in black leather. They definitely knew where I stood. (laughs)
ML: And what did you make of the Mods?
MW: The Mods were just not home. To each his own. Their lifestyle was…(laughs)…I was never into fashion.
ML: Which is wild because you became such a fashion icon.
MW: I could never picture myself sitting at a runway show, could you?
ML: No, never. But that’s the great thing. You subconsiously started a whole look.
MW: Who cares?
BM: I feel like I’m a guest on The View…
ML: But you only went to England, no other countries?
MW: Pretty much. There were a million things booked. I remember sitting in Los Angeles with these Japanese people and they were giving me scripts and things and making plans for us to go there.
ML: But you never did.
MW: Never did. It should have happened but there was just no time.
ML: Did you follow the charts?
MW: The charts thing is a strange position to be in. Once you have a smash hit, the record company is like, “OK, here’s the next one. I feel sorry for artists today. They’re here and gone and hey bring on th next one. I just saw Chrissie Hynde talking about today’s artists and what they face. Nobody gets behind them or develops them anymore. Bring on the next midriff section…
BM: Do you see the Shangri-Las in any act today?
MW: Maybe like the Donnas. I can see our attitude.
ML: Who were your favorites during the Shangri-Las years?
MW: I loved Dusty. The Jefferson Airplane, that might have been a little later, but I remember I first heard them on the way to the Fox Theatre. I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Village before he was famous. My jaw dropped. You know what was a great time? I went to a big party at Andy Warhol’s one day. It was fascinating. He had a huge loft with a deck and umbrellas and the bathroom had a golden throne. Very cool. Ultra Violet was there. Lots of cool people.
BM: There was a Shangri-Las Day at the New York World’s Fair.
MW: How did you know that?
BM: Because I remember being pissed that I didn’t get to go. We were always at the Word’s Fair.
MW: Me, too. I thought it was cool. They had a Monorail with our name on it and we performed.
BM: Mary, even being a star by then, that had to be a big thrill–hometown girls make good….
MW: Oh sure. We loved it. We all did.
BM: The Shangri-Las played at the New York Paramount with the Beatles. Did you meet them?
MW: No, they were on one floor and everybody else was on another. At the Paramount, Margie saved out the window high up so that everyone thought it was the Beatles waving. The crowd went nuts!
BM: When you gals….
MW: You gals? At least you didn’t say Girl Groups.
BM: Sorry Mary. No, I know better than to mention Girl Groups.
MW: Oh, kill me now! Thank you. How do you take an entire sex and dump them into one category? Girl Groups, I mean, please! What if we all had penises?
BM: Uh, that would have seriously affected the crush I had on you as a kid.
ML: People tend to categorize….
MW: Count me out. If Girl Groups were products, what were Boy Groups? (Looking at photo) Ow! You know who did this to my hair? Monti Rock III.
ML: How did Monti Rock end up doing your hair?
MW: He did our hair on that album cover nobody likes on Mercury, where we look Mod. Monti, wherever you are, what were you thinking?
ML: But you look so sultry there, like Veronica Lake.
MW: I look stupid. I didn’t like it at all.
ML: And those boots…
MW: Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what boots I really liked. They buttoned up and they were kid leather. There were like old fashioned 1890’s boots with cool heels. I got those at Saks.
ML: Boots became your signature.
MW: Yes, that’s why I like those outfits on the LEADER album. That was my thing.
ML: Whose suggestion was that?
MW: Nobody’s. That was us. It’s funny because it created such a hoopla, like we were tough, whatever and all it is, is a white shirt, a vest and a pair of black pants.
ML: But the black slacks, slacks at all, you really did something different there. It really defined the Shangri-Las.
MW: Jeans don’t fit on everyone.
BM: Yeah, when you’d see the Supremes on Ed Sullivan, hey’d have evening gowns on, old people’s clothes.
MW: I used to get my slacks on Eighth Street in the Village in a Men’s Store. People would look at me like I was gay because I like low rise pants. I don’t get it, quite frankly.
ML: These outfits were something else. (holds up I CAN NEVER GO HOME ANYMORE album)
MW: Yes, that’s what everyone was wearing ten years later, like Spandex.
ML: Now you couldn’t have bought those in a store. You had to have those made.
ML: Who designed them?
MW: We did. We just sat and did them ourselves.
ML: You don’t still have your boots, do you?
MW: Do you still have your boots from 1965?
BM: She might….
ML: The Shangri-Las got a lot of magazine coverage, too.
MW: We did a lot of interviews back then. “What do you do in your spare time?” What spare time?
BM: I have a record where the Shangri-Las are being interviewed and you get asked things like, “Do guys on the street really give you a great big kiss?”
MW: (laughs) “Ew, get away from me!”
BM: You hear so many stories about how bad you were….
MW: WHAT ABOUT IT!? (laughs)
ML: There’s stories about you tying up a guy and kidnapping him.
MW: You know, I don’t remember that, but if I did, he deserved it!
BM: And that you had guns….
MW: I did purchase a gun once, a little Derringer. I bought a gun after somebody tried to break into my hotel room. There were these glass panels on the side of the door and all of a sudden I see this arm coming through. Not only was I scared to death, but there were large amounts of money in the room. You’re on the road with no protection. But, I was a little kid. I didn’t know. Back then, you could walk in anywhere and buy a gun. But the FBI came to my mother’s house and said, “Will you please tell your daughter she’ll be arrested if she gets off the plane with her gun?” We just finished a tour in Florida and I turned it in at the police station down there.
BM: Did they get a chaperone for the group at any point?
MW: If you can call an eighteen-year-old a proper chaperone. Maybe nineteen, but that’s as grown up as it got. We had a road manager, Fat Frankie, for a while, then he managed NRBQ following that. That wasn’t much supervision. One of our other road managers was a black belt in karate. Once, there was a car full of drunken guys weaving all over a bridge, waving beer bottles and stuff and it was getting very dangerous. They kept swerving into our car and it was very scary. I was so petrified, my heart was in my throat. It was as if they thought they had the right to do this. They could have killed us all. Louis stopped the car and took them all on. They were flying everywhere, all over the bridge. You had no choice in the matter. It was a dark road with nowhere to go, there were no cell phones then. I’m glad he was there. I could see the headlines now, JIMMY KILLS MARY ON BRIDGE. It was much different than now. It’s very hard to explain. Nothing was organized. It was ‘Here’a list of shows, get on the road.” I was only fifteen.
ML: Now what about the night club scene?
MW: (whispers) I shouldn’t have even been in there. I was fifteen. We’d go in them and hang out, but we were more geared to the teen clubs. But we played the Whiskey A Go Go.
ML: Did the Shangri-Las work with one booking agency?
MW: Different ones. William Morris and others. But, you’d set limitations on them or they’d beat you to death, you’d never be off. You’d have to rehearse and record and do television, too.
BM: The Shangri-Las made so many TV appearances like Shindig and Hullabaloo. Here in New York, I never missed the Clay Cole Show. You seemed to be on it all the time…
MW: All the time. We sure were.
BM: It was almost like, time for Clay Cole, let’s see what’s new by the Shangri-Las.
MW: Clay had us on a lot. That was great! I’d walk in the studio, I knew all the guards by name, they were all nice, reputable people. I really felt at home there.
BM: And The Soupy Sales Show you were on that, too.
MW: I loved Soupy Sales! White Fang and Black Tooth. I loved it!
BM: And Philo Kvetch and Onions Oregano!
MW: Oniions Oregano–yeah, yeah! They had a gazillion White Fangs’ arms becaues the man doing White Fang kept burning it with his cigar! White Fang rules! I’d love to see the old Soupy tape again.
ML: What was it like dealing with mobs of fans?
MW: A lot of times it was very frightening. One time in an aquarium there was no security and I just about had my clothes ripped off. And the fans with pens almost poking your eye out. There was no security then. We were just winging it. When there’s a lot of them and one of you, it gets scary. I was in the Village one time and there was like thirty bikers and they recognized me. Luckily, they were fans and nothing happened.
BM: When Red Bird went out of business in 1966 and you signed to Mercury, how different was it from Red Bird? Did you notice a change?
MW: Definitely. There really wasn’t much support.
BM: Mercury issued two singles and the greatest hits album. The last Shangri-Las single “Take the Time” from 1967 is weird, a pro-Vietnam record.
MW: I never wanted to record that song. I was completely against the Vietnam War and I protested accordingly. Still, the Shangri-Las supported our servicemen and women and I’ve done many shows for them.
ML: The tough appearance of the Shangri-Las, that wasn’t just an image thing, you really were tough.
MW: In certain ways I am. When you’re a kid and you’re on the road and nobody’s got your back, you better be tough. You better act as tough as you can because they’ll devour you. We scared lots of people away, made lots of bands behave and back down. What else are you going to do?
ML: That wasn’t just you. That was your sister and the twins, too?
MW: Absolutely. It was us against the world, really. Miriam, you would have done the same thing. You would. It was better when we had our own band traveling with us. It was more like a family.
ML: One thing that makes the Shangri-Las different than a lot of female acts of the day, was most of them seemed overprotected. And it virtually was always a family member calling the shots.
MW: Can you imagine? Mommy is there to wipe your nose?
ML: You wouldn’t have had a chance to be tough. It’s what makes you who you are.
MW: Absolutely not. And I’d have been a different person if my father hadn’t died. They’re all life experiences. Some good, some bad. It’s the same thing when everybody’s your best friend and then they suddenly go away. That is a very hard lesson in life. Who are your friends? That is tough stuff. I guess in a way I’m tough. I’m a survivor.
BM: Was there a defining moment when the Shangri-Las split up?
MW: Everybody around us was suing each other. Basically to me, the litigation just got so insane and it wasn’t about music anymore.
ML: Did you go back home?
MW: I moved out on my eighteenth birthday. I moved into a hotel in Manhattan, then Gramercy Park and then I moved to San Francisco for a while. It was hard to get into the music business and it was even harder to get out. I couldn’t go near another record company for ten years.
ML: For the next ten years you couldn’t record?
MW: No. It was absolutely insane. And that was also how long I was still recognized in the street, which made it even more difficult. People don’t realize how comfortable it is being Joe Blow, private citizen. Everybody wants to be a star. I never quite got that, honestly.
ML: But singing was what you wanted to do, and when that was no longer an option, it must have been horrifying.
MW: It was. I lost my way.
ML: Ten year sentence, that’s rough
MW: It was real rough.
ML: It seems like you had a positive feeling and then to have it come crashing down…
MW: Yes and no. I could have pursued it further but how much deeper do you want to get into legal nonsense? At some point you just have to cut it off. I always thought that someday I’d go back to music, I just didn’t know when.
ML: Were you being pigeon holed or typecast? Did you want to do other types of music?
MW: Afterwards? Absolutely. I could have sung lots of stuff. I was always the one who pursued things here and there and I went up to a publisher, but disco was popular and they wanted me to put a gardenia in my hair and ….(dances)
BM: At least you don’t have bad disco albums coming back to haunt you. If you had to pick one song, a post Shangri-Las song by somebody else, to tackle, what would it be?
MW: I love Patti Smith. I always wish I had recorded “Because the Night.” What a great freakin’ song.
BM: The Shangri-Las got back together in 1977 and recorded for Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Seymour worked with the Shangri-Las in the sixties, right?
MW: Seymour was our road manager for a short period of time. Margie was a complete prankster and I don’t think Seymour got it. Kids will be kids. I think the fireworks didn’t set well with him. When we were touring and we were in states that sold fireworks, we always bought them and set them off.
BM: Teenage girls with explosives, what’s not to like?
ML: But nothing you recorded with Sire was ever released. Why was that?
MW: I was very grateful to Seymour years later for giving us a shot with Sire, but it wasn’t there, material-wise. I don’t want anything released that I don’t believe in. It just wasn’t there. I wish (Richard) Gottehrer had been brought in. It just wasn’t right. I welcomed the opportunity from Seymour Stein, but it just didn’t work out. We recorded a few things, but it wasn’t happening.
BM: Did Liz and Margie feel the same way?
MW: Yes, we all did.
BM: But the Shangri-Las did one unannounced show at CBGB at the time.
MW: That was cool! It was impromptu. We just walked in and had fun.
BM: Why didn’t you do more shows like that?
MW: I didn’t want to do old stuff. I could have done that for thirty years.
ML: The Shangri-Las accomplished a lot.
MW: I come from an extremely poor family. The Gansers were relatively poor. Nobody had any money. No money for attorneys. So considering where the four of us came from, with no support, no guidance and nothing behind us, we didn’t have proper outfits onstage. I mean nothing. It’s a miracle in itself to come from those circumstances and have hit records, so I’m very grateful.
ML: So where have you been?
MW: I went to work for an architectural firm and I was seriously into it. Then I got into commercial interiors, huge projects, buildings. Then we hit a point in our lives where you go, “What am I doing?” I knew where I feel at home and I’ve never felt more at home that with music. Either I’m gonna do it or not.
ML: Cool! Welcome back.
MW: Thanks, it’s been way too long. I look forward to recording and my future in music. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.
Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).
Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).
And after that?
Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.
Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.
But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.
In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.
Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.
Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.
Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:
He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…
Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…
The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…
By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.
Big names even.
Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.
What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…
…and literally a hundred more.
You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”
To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”
As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”
You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.
But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!
Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?
In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…
and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…
And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone, sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…
…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…
Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.
But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.
Those records could be as great and iconic as this…
or even this…
But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…
Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).
As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.
One man did.
That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…
[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]
The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.
The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.
Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.
At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.
If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.
Always a heady place to be, that.
I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.
It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”
I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.
What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?
Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.
And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.
I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.
But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.
And the more it’s possible for us to care.
I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!
So, no, not imperative. But possible.
Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.
And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.
I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.
The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.
Disorienting to say the least.
Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.
I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.
So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.
But it doesn’t get under my skin.
Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.
Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”
Those little half-pauses are everything.
This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.
And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?
Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.
Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.
The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?
And vice versa.
The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.
We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).
Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.
His father isn’t a doctor.
He isn’t applying for college.
The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.
What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.
He is as it turns out.
And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.
After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!
But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.
So how does she relate anyway?
Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:
“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.
“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.
“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.
Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.
But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.
So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?
It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.
Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own TheReturn of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).
That future is all they can lose.
This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.
Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.
Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.
It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.
Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.
Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.
Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.
To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.
That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.
It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.
“Maybe…” that face says.
Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”
Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?
Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.
Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.
Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.
And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.
Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.
I think I’ll try to get up now.
Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.
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.)