THE LONG HAIRED COUNTRY BOY MOVES ALONG (Charlie Daniels, R.I.P.)

I spent the summer of 1979 working at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. My car was a ’71 Ford Maverick with no air-conditioning and an AM-only radio. In that part of North Carolina I could pull about four stations. If I spent more than four minutes in the hot car I heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band on at least one of those stations.

More than a few times, when I was tooling around looking for record shops, I heard it on all four stations consecutively. The record would end on one station and go to a commercial or a song I didn’t like (a VERY common occurrence in 1979 no matter where I was) and I would punch the button and land in the middle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Then it would end and I would change stations again and the next station would be playing it and so on. I learned the words a long time before the summer was over.

Today when I found out Charlie had passed, I pulled it up on YouTube and, though I hadn’t heard it in at least twenty years, I hadn’t forgot a thing–including the fall of ’79, when I came home and started watching college football and poor Chris Schenkel was doing a game intro, welcoming the fans to the game of the week and, whichever southern stadium was hosting (Athens? Auburn? Baton Rouge?…the memory hazes) had Charlie for a guest and the network cut to him just as he was substituting “son of a bitch” for “son of a gun.”

Different times.

Of course there was a lot more to Charlie Daniels than my memories (which stretched back to my sister and me laughing at “Uneasy Rider” on the way home from the mall almost a decade before). He was a top-tier session man and formidable band leader and his big break came writing the greatest record in Elvis’ vast secret catalog (and one of the greatest in his catalog, period):

Later on, in 1982 to be exact, he took the lid off the top 40’s resistance to the damage Viet Nam had left in both individual vet’s lives and the country’s psyche with his cover of Dan Daley’s “Still in Saigon.” Whether that was a makeup for redneck anthems like “Leave This Long Haired Country Boy Alone” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” or a continuum of a valid world view is a matter of taste. What is undeniable is that it opened a seam that, on the radio, ran all the way to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”

But to tell you the truth, what I remember today is the Summer of ’79, when he was literally the only good thing on the radio…so good they played him on every station, country, rock and pop, all day long, all summer long:

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020: Volume 2)

10) Rick Nelson Garden Party (1972)

A concept LP about the joys, perils, and traps of rock stardom from a man who had seen more sides of the story than anybody but Elvis and, like Elvis, would find the road ending in the trap of an early death. I suppose it was possible in 1972, with E and Chuck Berry also back at the top of the charts, to think there would be more hit singles like the title track and ho-hum. But there weren’t and Rick doesn’t sound like someone who took his “comeback” for granted, but suspected it was only a temporary bit of well-earned good fortune. One of the first LPs I bought, because I knew I loved the hit from the radio and because it was cheap in a cutout bin: When I found out, a few years later, that Christgau had given it a B- , it was the first sign that he and I were not exactly going to get along. And it’s greater now, when it’s no longer seemly or excusable to take it for granted, than it was then.

9) Various Artists Shagger’s Delight (1981)

A fabulous collection of “beach music,” a subset of 50’s R&B and light 60’s soul that Carolina college kids turned into their own little genre in the 70’s. This is heavy on the R&B, though the real keeper is the Kingpins’ “It Won’t Be This Way Always” from the early 60’s and a bridge to the future of a lot more than beach music.

8) Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club (1985)

 

Released 20 years after Cooke’s tawdry, untimely death, this is the LP that shocked everyone who hadn’t heard his gospel music. I’d heard his gospel. I wasn’t shocked. That’s probably why, although I bought it right away, it took me a long time to hear it for what it was: A sizzling live performance in front of a sympathetic black audience by one of soul’s greatest singers and master showmen. You want to know how and why his loss was felt so deeply by so many, this is the place to start.

7) Sam Cooke The Man and His Music (1986)

Which makes this the place to finish. If I just want to sing along to some Sam Cooke, I still pull 1962’s RCA Best of. But if I want to hear as much of the whole story as I can absorb in one sitting, this double-LP is better than similar length CD-only comps. His box set doesn’t have “A  Change Is Gonna Come.” I know it was a rights issue at the time…but any journey that long has to end there. This one does….without leaving off anything from “Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “Everybody Loves to Cha, Cha, Cha,” along the way.

6)  Various Artists A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1, 1950-1958 (1987)

Ya’ll know I like the democracy of the title–“a” not “the.” And this is the cream of that very large crop even it doesn’t have Fats Domino. The sound of his piano is all over this, even if he didn’t play a lick here (and it’s possible he played any number). What more do you need than that? Heck, the way Shirley and Lee start things off, you’d be halfway through a record of crickets chirping before you noticed anyway.

5) Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

The version of “Iko, Iko” from the prior LP put me in mind of Cyndi’s brilliant use of it here so I listened to the whole thing….and was again reminded that it’s fine from beginning to end. There was a weird backlash at the time because it only had three hit singles instead of the five spun off She’s So Unusual. Because she had let the Rock side down by not becoming as popular as the Dance/Hip-Hop side’s Madonna at the last minute where those sides were anything like equal. And because it wasn’t the Greatest Album of the Decade! Funny, I thought there could only be one of those. Anyway, the singles were great, including her searing version of “What’s Going On,” (best heard here) which she fashioned as an answer record to Marvin Gaye’s where anyone else with her chops would have insisted on competing…and not even the Greatest Album of the Decade had a moment to match it segueing into an “Iko, Iko” to kill and die for.

4) Jackie Wilson The Jackie Wilson Story (1983)

My God he was great…”Reet Petite” and the rest of the early Berry Gordy-penned hits, which the Boss used to start Motown, right on through to the early 70’s. This beautifully chosen 2-LP set doesn’t miss a trick or slow down. It’s all great but my favorite is Side Two which kicks off with “Baby Workout” and then turns to his fabulous straight blues singing. The teenage Al Green got kicked out of his house because he couldn’t stop listening to this and Elvis and he redeemed himself by being the only man who could live up to either.

3) Tanya Tucker Here’s Some Love (1976)

Tanya used to keep me up nights–and I mean until the sun came up–trying to figure her out. This was the LP that proved she didn’t need either Billy Sherill or Snuff Garrett to cut monster hits, her first really adult outing.  Her wild child image has been so enduring it’s easy to forget how much she contributed to the new style of Countrypolitan. This one contains a lot of hidden gems and, like many of her LPs from this period, is not on CD. Hey Bear Family, get with it. I wanna stay up all night again!

2) Gary “U.S.” Bonds Frank Guida Presents U.S. Bonds Greatest Hits (1981…I think)

If this wild ride through the swamp had been produced in New Orleans or Memphis or some other pre-qualified place it’s hard to imagine Guida, Bonds and Gene Barge not having higher profiles maybe even Hall of Fame profiles. Because it came from Norfolk, Virginia, no such luck. Too bad because it can make your day.

1) Raspberries Raspberries’ Best: Featuring Eric Carmen  (1976)

I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this set ends where it began: with a 70’s-era concept LP about rock stardom. Only this time, it’s all about the dream of getting there, with “Overnight Sensation,” the consummate lyrical and emotional expression of the ideal, resting in the middle. It’s brilliantly programmed and every time I put it on the turntable and remember how close they came without quite making it, I have to laugh to keep from crying. Other people in my generation had “punk.” I had them. It was just enough. And this stops just short of Eric Carmen going solo and sending me into a black hole of depression!

If you want to know what it was like to live through the 70’s listen to War’s great albums If you want to know what the lost possibilities of the 70’s felt like, listen to this.

…Til next time!

JUST FOR FUN (Something I NEVER Do…)

There’s evidently a meme going around (or perhaps Terry Teachout is trying to start one) called Seven Albums to Know Me By….

I just picked the first seven that came to mind…but I bet if I thought about it a long-g-g-g-g time, it wouldn’t look much different:

The Impressions The Vintage Years (1958-72, released 1977)

The greatest album ever assembled and the history of Black America from the late 50’s to today…in 28 impeccable sides.

The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)

Well, it did save my life. Funny: Beauty and the Beat, which I’ve listened to far more often, wouldn’t tell you a thing about me. Art is funny that way.

Elvis Presley From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

Not even really the cream of the greatest vocal sessions ever recorded. But programmed as its own kind of perfection…and “Long Black Limousine” carries E’s you-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-you-lookin’-at-me ethos, evident as far back as the Sun sessions, to its natural conclusion. Living in two minds and observing one’s self from afar–these things I am in touch with.

The Persuasions: Chirpin’ (1977)

The greatest album cover. The music? No words. Nothing defines you quite like that which leaves you speechless.

Al Green The Belle Album (1977)

He brought me safe thus far…through many drunken country bars.

My spiritual autobiography even though I’ve never been near a drunken country bar. Art being funny again.

The Four Seasons Story (1962-70, released 1975)

Absurdist high harmonies and drums loud enough to lock the world out. If you know that much about me, you know me very well. There have been greater collections on CD, but this was there when I was in survival mode.

The Byrds Greatest Hits (1965-66, released 1967)

If not for this…who knows about the rest?

(If seven had been ten: Shangri-Las ’65, War Greatest Hits, Dusty in Memphis).

…and now back to the Democratic Primary Season! bwahahahahahahahahaha!

OH, CANADA…AND SO MUCH MORE (Jack Scott, R.I.P.)

Though his family moved to Detroit when he was ten and he made his mark as a unique voice in rockabilly and later country, Jack Scott (born Giovanni Scafone, Jr.) was the first true Canadian rock and roll star. He was both more rock and roll and more Canadian than Paul Anka, who was headed to Vegas wherever he was from.

And he was a great one, racking up 19 chart hits in 41 months, a feat matched in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era only by Elvis, the Beatles, Fats Domino and Connie Francis. More importantly, he was a musical and spiritual godfather for the Band (whose original leader, Ronnie Hawkins moved from Arkansas to Canada, reversing Scott’s journey), the Guess Who, Randy Bachman, Neil Young and anybody else who made rock and roll out of Canadian roots. On the American side, he was also the first serious white rocker out of the Detroit that would produce Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger among others.

He died this past December after having a heart attack on my birthday. He left here an unjustly forgotten pioneer who worked until the very end and was more deserving of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction than any of the acts or businessmen whose inductions were announced the month after his death.

They forgot.

We ain’t forgot….

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Fall 2019, Countdown–All Vinyl Edition)

10) Elvis Presley The Sun Sessions (1976)

Still the best way to hear the revolution happening in real time. What’s remarkable at this distance is how quiet the music is at its core, something one would never say about E’s R&B predecessors though it might apply to some of his pop and bluegrass influences. The leap from “Blue Moon of Kentucky”–incendiary in context–to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (which wastes fine versions by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris–along with all of human history to that moment, including “That’s Alright Mama”) is still shocking. A miracle in other words and as inexplicable as ever.

9) The Firesign Theatre Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)

I had to pull this to be sure it was the source of The Department of Redundancy Department so of course I listened to the whole thing. I always found them hit and miss (I sort of thought that was the point–that nobody would get all of it, especially the people who swore they did.)

I laughed. Nervously. Like always. Still not sure if they were geniuses or complete frauds.

Which might also be the point.

8) The Beatles Second Album (1964)

If you accept the Beatles as a garage band before they were anything else, this is the greatest garage band album ever. It was, of course, put out by their American record company, Capitol, with any eye to maximum commercial exploitation of their magic, maximally commercial, moment.

But that doesn’t keep it from being their strongest LP, start to finish. “Roll Over Beethoven” (with George delivering a rabid lead vocal) and “Money” are the strongest of their many strong covers and you can smell their naked ambition in every groove. Capitalism 101 all the way around. If you substitute greed for ambition, you can understand why John Lennon spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to everyone…including the tragic pretense he could walk around the streets of the meanest city in the world like any other citizen without paying a price.

7) Nancy Sinatra Nancy (1969)

The greatest torch album recorded by any member of the Sinatra family and that’s no shame on the rest because, at least thematically, it might be the greatest torch album by any member of anybody’s family.

I scored it for three bucks at a record show in the early nineties and, after my first listen, immediately set out on a quest to track down the rest of her LPs, which were not easy to find in the Florida Panhandle in those days. (Later, I bought them all on CD, only to see them go in the Great CD Selloff of 2002. This is the only one I’ve replaced. Hey, I still got the vinyl versions of the rest.) It turned out this was her magnum opus, the album she had in her all along. Absent Lee Hazlewood, she eschewed any pretense of being hip or groovy and slowed everything to a crawl. “Light My Fire,” “Son of a Preacher Man” “For Once in My Life” even “Memories,” which was slow to begin with, are drawn into her space so thoroughly and intimately the question of whether her versions are “better” is left for fools. The killer was “Big Boss Man,” which she not only slowed down, but turned inside out. She got scant credit for any of this, of course. I wonder if it would have made a difference if they’d included “Home,” her tribute to the body bags coming home from Viet Nam (now available as a bonus track on the CD edition). Probably not. Returning soldiers weren’t very popular then. Dead or alive.

6) Charlie Rich The Fabulous Charlie Rich (1969)

One of the greatest vocal albums ever recorded, stellar even by the standards of ’69, which was the greatest vocal year in the history of American music.

Rich was one of the few singers who could immerse himself in Beautiful Loser mythos and get away with it, probably because he didn’t sound like he was imagining being beaten. He sounded like he was beaten. That he was barely hanging on.

This is the best place to hear the timless “Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs,” but the whole thing shines and “July 12, 1939,” his prequel/sequel to “Ode to Billie Joe” hasn’t aged a day either.

5) Linda Ronstadt Mad Love (1980)

An exchange in Greil Marcus’s mailbag had me pulling this one off the shelf for the first time in forever. I confess I missed it. She went New Wave (fake punk in Marcus’s words) and nailed it solid….like she usually did, except this is more consistent than anything I can remember except Heart Like a Whell and Prisoner in Disguise, the one-two punch that made her a superstar who could take these kind of chances in the first place.

This is also the one where she responded to Elvis Costello’s attack on her version of “Alison” by recording three more of his songs and beating him two falls out of three. That was after she called him a brat. It took brass to do all that in the brief period where he was a genius, but the real highlights, the title tune and “How Do I Make You,” don’t owe EC a thing. This one may go into heavy rotation.

4) James Brown Can Your Heart Stand It!! (1981)

This was actually my proper introduction to JB. What with all the box sets and CD reissues and what not, I’d forgotten how perfect it was

It only took one listen to remember. Understandably, people focus on the four-square funk bottom. But it was his singing that was the real miracle, the vocal equivalent of watching Elvis on television in the 50’s, or James himself on The T.A.M.I. Show.

You keep thinking, What will he do next?

Decades of listening don’t really yield any answers. The next move, whenever it comes, is still a surprise.

(And God bless the late, lamented Solid Smoke label, on which this and the next entry appeared.)

3) The Sheppards 18 Dusty Diamonds (1980)

This came out in the early 80’s, when record companies were just starting to pick up the pace when it came to discovering, or rediscovering, rock and roll’s bottomless nature.

The Sheppards were some kind of cross between doo wop and soul, a bit like The Jive Five. But, where the Five were always defined by Eugene Pitt’s dark, moody leads, the Sheppards were more flexible. That could lead them to the occasional silly novelty, but when they locked in, which was often, they were as great as anybody.

2) Ivory Joe Hunter The Man and His Music: Classics I & II (1983)

Well, as you can see this one is pretty obscure. I couldn’t find an image online for this particular collection, proving you still can’t find everything on the internet! (Well, proving I can’t anyway).

It’s a double-LP collection of Ivory Joe’s music from his late 40’s R&B heyday to his late 60’s forays into country. He was such a master of nuance that you could switch the production styles from one era to another and nobody would be the wiser. Intriguing discovery (and one more reason you should pay attention to your record collection) is a 1961 side “May the Best Man Win,” where he sounds so much like Charlie Rich you can’t help wondering who influenced who.

1) Dizzy Gillespie New Wave (1963)

My favorite bop album. One of these days I’m going to replace my scratchy vinyl with a clean-sounding CD. Since the vinyl came used (from my Dad’s flea market stash many moons ago), I’ve never heard it the way it’s supposed to be heard. I think the reason I haven’t upgraded is because I’m afraid it will lose something in the process.

Being the first form of American music made principally for dilettantes (or at least being principally exploited by them), bop’s not really my thing. It’s a pure mystery why I warmed to this one. But then, music is supposed to be a mystery isn’t it?

I hope they remember that in heaven.

….til next time.

“NOT BY THE COLOR OF THEIR SKIN” (Donnie Fritts and Jimmy Johnson, R.I.P.)

One of Rock and Roll America’s receding ironies, once well-known, these days increasingly reduced to a secret, is the multi-racial nature of its blackest music: The southern soul and funk of the 1960s. The number of white people who signify their righteousness by preferring the “real” black music of Memphis and Muscle Shoals to Detroit’s Motown is…amusing. (For the record, actual black people have always preferred Motown.)

Amusing because the key Memphis band, Booker T and the MGs was split down the middle and the key Muscle Shoals band, the Swampers, was almost entirely white.

Except on record, it hardly made for Utopia. Aretha Franklin found her sound at Muscle Shoals, but left after a few days because her then-husband was accusing every white boy in the place of chasing her (with what credibility no one ever seems to have figured out).

She brought the musicians to New York to finish her first Atlantic album anyway.

They were the sound, not the place.

Two of the most prominent Swampers, keyboardist Donnie Fritts and ace guitarist Jimmy Johnson, passed away within a few days of each other in the past two weeks. They eventually wore many hats, including writing and producing. Listing their major accomplishments would take days.

Maybe all you really need to know is that Donnie Fritts wrote this (Elvis took a shot at it in 1973 and, by consensus of those present, was too overcome with emotion to finish it):

And Jimmy Johnson, doubling with Chips Moman (who also did a few other things), played guitar on this, ensuring it would be a massive hit and the era’s most enduring shout of freedom before the singer sang a note:

Their music is the closest we ever came to finding the real American Dream…and the only way back.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Summer 2019, Countdown)

I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:

10)  The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.

It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.

But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.

9)  Ringo Starr: Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)

ringo1Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One?  Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.

8)  Clarence Carter: Snatching It Back (1992)

clarencecarter1

I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?

Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.

What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?

It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.

It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.

7)  Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)

My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”

I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the  Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.

6)  Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)

buddyholly1

You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.

Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.

5)  Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (1976)

bozzscaggs

It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.

And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An  earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.

4)  Jimmy Reed: The Anthology (2011)

Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.

3)  The Jackson 5: Anthology (1976)

The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.

So it goes.

2)  Earl Lewis and the Channels: New York’s Finest (1990)

Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?

Besides being transported I mean.

1)  The Chi-Lites: Greatest Hits (1972)

I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)

An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.

I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.

And I wonder if we really want to.

Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.

I won’t hold my breath.

Till next time…

TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (Track-By-Track)

Two Steps From the Blues (1961)
Bobby “Blue” Bland

(This is the third in my Track-By-Track sub-series on my twenty favorite vocal albums of the 20th century. We’re up to 1961!)

There’s no one quite like Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the late fifties he invented a new blues voice, one that balanced shouting and crooning so effortlessly that he can be heard all over the voices who came behind him. Not much else connects the rawest Otis Redding to the smoothest Aaron Neville. Moreover Bland didn’t stay on the surface. He went as deep as any of his acolytes and, for the most part, he went there first. This, collecting sides he cut at sessions in 1960 and some modest hits he had recorded in the late fifties was his definitive statement. You won’t be able to tell which is which without a scorecard, nor do such distinctions matter to any but statisticians. It’s a concept album because Bland’s was a conceptual career. They called him The Sinatra of the Blues. I’d say, not lightly, the comparison flattered Sinatra.

 

“Two Steps From the Blues”One month from the day I first met you, your promises proved to be untrue. Thus begins the journey. Isolated, desperate, yearning. All of that blues aficionados had heard before. What might have been new, even on a Bobby “Blue ” Bland record was the delicacy, the precision, the desire to make each rain drop land softly, softly, like a prelude to Chinese water torture….or the sweet relief of turning it off.

“Cry, Cry, Cry”–Why? So it could be continued for another minute or two before being followed by a hurricane shout? Hey, why not. What else could follow it.

“I’m Not Ashamed”Some people call me the biggest fool in town, but I’m not ashamed. He’s ashamed. He’s just helplessly, hopelessly caught in a trap which black women had been told for centuries they couldn’t possibly build strong enough to hold a man. They probably always knew better, but I bet it felt good hearing a man finally admit it.

“Don’t Cry No More”–Now the lyrics turn towards comfort, even as the voice gets rawer, deeper, faster. Towards the end, he starts to croon, probably to exclude all the men from the conversation.

“Lead Me On”You know how it feels, you understand, what it is to be a stranger in this unfriendly land. Possibly the loneliest record ever made. The rest of the album provides most of the competition. The phrasing and timbre on the last line give a clear guide to what this gut-bucket blues man learned from Nat “King” Cole.

“I Pity the Fool”I pity the fool that falls in love with you…and expects you to be true. The surging horns are a straight harbinger of 60’s soul. Bland turns the neat trick of shouting the verses and crooning the chorus. The playing under the final chorus presages jazz rock and contains everything useful it would ever be. He croons over that, too.

“I’ve Just Got to Forget You”–Now he tries to get over what we know by now you can’t get over. Certainly not while listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“Little Boy Blue”–Told you so.

“St. James Infirmary”–Out of nine hundred versions, many of them classic, the only one you need. He closes by reminding the world she’ll never find a man like him, presumably not even in Heaven…and finding three ways to say She’s gone, none of which give away whether we should feel worse for her or him.

“I’ll Take Care of You”I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. I can tell by the way your carry yourself. Loneliness presented as a disease comprised of music, sound, arrangement, melody. The cure is ten percent words, ninety percent the voice singing them.

“I Don’t Want No Woman”–The closest he comes to a conventional reading of a conventional blues. Also, not coincidentally, the closest he comes to straight out defiance. l don’t want no woman telling me how to live my life. If the rest of this album didn’t exist, you might even believe him.

“I’ve Been Wrong So Long”–A complete summation of all that has gone before, including the shout of defiance…now sublimated, but, no matter what the words say, not entirely dismissed.

See, I told you it was a concept album!

After Bobby “Blue” Bland, certainly after this album, black music could never be the same. And, in the twentieth century, when black music couldn’t be the same, neither could America. All this we’ve forgot. But the journey goes on.

Bobby “Blue” Bland (far right) with Elvis Presley and Junior Parker

[Next up: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat]

HOWLIN’ WOLF aka THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR ALBUM (Track-By-Track)

Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]

Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.

If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.

For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.

Aha, I thought. This is the one.

Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.

I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.

For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.

“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.

The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.

“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?

“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.

“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!

“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby.  So much for the light-hearted side.

“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.

“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.

“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!

“Back Door Man”The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?

“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.

“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.

Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)

THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG STORY-VOL. 4: FAVORITES (Track-By-Track)

The Louis Armstrong Story-Vol. 4: Favorites (1956)

[Note: As far as I know, none of the four volumes in the Louis Armstrong Story series have ever been issued on CD. This is a review of Columbia’s vinyl release CL 854 in mono. No collection should be without it, even if you have all the music in other configurations or on other delivery systems.  As is, it’s one of the world’s few perfect things.]

Louis Armstrong is now so routinely called the greatest American musician of the twentieth century it has become hard to hear him through the fog of hagiography. It’s like hearing the Beatles forever described as the Greatest Rock and Roll Band. It might be true but enough already!

Whenever I need reminding of the power of Armstrong’s actual genius–to clear my heart and soul of the cant thrown up by a Crit-Illuminati filled with cramped spirits determined to shove him down my throat without demonstrating the least understanding of what they’re selling–I come back to this LP.

Assembled by Columbia Records in the 1950s as part of a “Golden Era Series” which, as the liner notes say was “produced and edited by George Avakin, noted authority on jazz, from original masters which he has assembled and preserved in Columbia’s vaults at Bridgeport, Conn.”.

I count nine raised pinkies in twenty-five words. Finger sandwiches at the dean’s house. Don’t be late.

If you can transcend that you can transcend anything.

Louis Armstrong didn’t always transcend, but when he did, he set the American century in motion.

The focus here is on the Pop side of Pops. Like Elvis and Ray Charles (and no one else) after him and no one before him, he could turn dross into gold. Like them, he sometimes abused supreme talent’s supreme privilege.

There’s none of that here. This is hardly everything you need to know. But it covers more ground than any other short version of his mighty career: twelve early-thirties’ sides bridging his cosmic Hot Fives and Sevens’ canon from the twenties, with the ingenious, perhaps necessary, masks he was forced to wear for the rest of his life. Inevitably some of them wore him. Here, he was in full control.

“Knockin’ a Jug”–Of course my favorite of Armstrong’s vocal LP begins with an instrumental, a little miracle of rhythm and ease that exemplifies its title with a surfeit of wit and no trace of irony. Call it a modest fanfare and if that sounds like a contradiction, well you might be getting the idea of what Louis Armstrong is about.

“Body and Soul”–Now he goes to work on the Great American Songbook….and finds depths the Tin Pan Alley geniuses probably didn’t suspect existed. They were masters of surfaces. Armstrong was a master of linking the surface to what lay beneath. Here he sets the boundaries of his early formula–a lengthy orchestral intro that turns out to be a setup. The way he sings I’ve lost my one and only turns the intro on its head.

“Star Dust” -1–A first take on what many consider the era’s finest popular melody (courtesy of Hoagy Carmicheal, Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics), here completely deconstructed and put back together as something rougher and more beautiful than even this most sublime of formal compositions.

“Star Dust”-2–Second take, with Armstrong’s improvised “Oh, memory” there to break your heart right before his horn lifts the pieces. It’s one of those interpolations nobody else could get away with.

“Black and Blue”–A vocal so powerful and pure (and rough) your oh memory might not hold the lengthy intro’s muted, painful playing or the pared-to-the-essence outro’s sudden burst of defiance. Ralph Ellison copped the words in between for the prologue of Invisible Man. Armstrong pruned the original Broadway lyric (the tune was Fats Waller’s) and until Aretha Franklin recorded Otis Redding’s “Respect,” it was the greatest cover in American music. Then again, it still might be.

“Shine”–Bottomless. A 1910 coon song dressed up as a lament (and based on a beating witnessed in a 1900 New York City race riot). Armstrong sings it like an ancestral memory, with the scatting that would later become schtick (because soon enough there was nowhere else for it to go and no way to let it go) used to say things that couldn’t be conveyed by words in 1931 any more than in 1900 or 1910 or this morning.

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”–According to the liner notes, this was the “first in the familiar formula (trumpet-vocal-trumpet), with the band playing straight man to the star.” Though there were no less than eight hit versions, before and after, this wasn’t one of them, probably because it was too strong for the pop chart of any era. A lot of justifiable attention has been paid to his remarkable phrasing but there’s been too little appreciation of Armstrong’s limber timbre, which could funnel the lightest emotions into the deepest and back again by shifting a single piece of gravel in his throat the merest centimeter. Here he makes not being able to give you anything but love sound like being trapped at the bottom of a well he’s bound to escape from. Just because we can all relate doesn’t make it radio fare.

“Lazy River”–After a brief intro that lets you know the river in question is slow and sweet as molasses, he says “Yeah.” If that was all he said it would be enough, but of course he takes you on a tour, horn, lips, tongue and all and floats the world away. Its the kind of river that can only exist in the American south and Armstrong is the only man who could dream the Klan hiding on the banks away and make you believe it.

“Dear Old Southland”–The sound of longing for a home that went missing. Instrumental except for a few offhand spoken words but if you can’t hear his horn singing you might be spiritually deaf.

“If I Could Be With You”–Here he messes with the trumpet-vocal-trumpet formula, leading off with a baby-oh-baby-I-want-to-be-with-you-tonight before the trumpet plays. By the time he starts singing again he only needs to add a line to two to make his effect complete. Really baby. He wants to be with you tonight. The closest thing to a straightforward reading on the album which means it only has four left turns in it.

“I’m Confessin'”–A lovely, flowing reverie kicked off by a plucked guitar which quickly shifts to a blues and then shifts again to a Hawaiin feel (with light orchestra) behind the vocal which slides along until it’s time to give way to the trumpet.

“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy”–All setting up this hot little number. The song is barely there, an excuse to let loose. Let loose he does: as if to say “Haven’t I done enough?” Yes, Louis, you’ve done enough. And I done forgot the words works whether you think he really forgot the words or not and whether you think he thought the words were worth forgetting…or not.

[NOTE: Not long after I started The Round Place in the Middle, by way of introducing myself, I did a series of “favorites” posts. One was my twenty favorite vocal albums irrespective of genre. You can find the list here. Favorites was the first entry on the list. I’m planning to do track-by-track for the whole list, in chronological order. Hoping to do at least one a week, but in any case, I’ll get to them all eventually! NEXT UP: Howlin’ Wolf, The Rocking Chair LP]