DEFENDING MY LIFE ONE ALBUM AT A TIME (#98 The Rock and Roll Trio)

#98 The Rock and Roll Trio (aka The Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio) Tear It Up (Recorded1956-57, Comp Released 1978 Solid Smoke)

Info: 17 Tracks

My Copy: Vinyl

When and how I acquired it: Sometime shortly after I heard about it in the 1980 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide.. God knows where I bought it but it’s been played to death and still looks and sounds pristine, as do all my other records from this beautiful label. Solid Smoke, you were a godsend.

Why I acquired it: It’s reputation suggested a mind-blowing sound which suggested it was necessary. You could practically smell the fear coming off the pages where the crit-illuminati composed their careful, tepid praise where they tried to argue it wasn’t. Who was right, them or my gut? It’s here so you know the answer.

Other ratings: Rolling Stone Record Guide 1980 Four Stars (out of five). Also recommended by John Morthland’s The Best of Country Music.

Every other major rockabilly act, even Jerry Lee, had at least a thin coat of polish. At least in these early years, Johnny Burnette, his brother Dorsey, and their friend Paul Burlison, looked, acted. and, most importantly, sounded exactly like what they were: tough Memphis rednecks who fought like junkyard dogs amongst themselves, banded together against anyone else, and knew Elvis mostly as the kid from down the street they picked on in high school on the rare occasions they deigned to notice him at all.

There’s a story that Burlison, their guitar player extraordinaire, discovered feedback when his amp got knocked loose by accident in the studio. Maybe, but you can bet nobody else would have kept it.

There’s also a body of critical thinking that says Johnny’s voice was overhyped, somehow not “authentic” (that prized quality most critics wouldn’t know if it bit off their finger–a quality I’m convinced is closely related to their willingness to forgive murder more readily than disagreement, which they also pretend to prize–they’re a complicated bunch).

That’s hogwash. Morthland went along with the crowd on Johnny’s singing because he was a nice man but he was right when he said they were the only major talents who were more into Rockabilly itself than into Elvis. Johnny becoming a successful (and effective) teen-idol crooner later on doesn’t prove a thing. Rage doesn’t become less genuine because you grown up and it burns out. Believe me, I was the quietest kid on the block and I speak from experience.

When Johnny Burnette let loose in the studio–in Owen Bradley’s studio in Nashville no less, the anti-Memphis if there ever was one–he was inventing and inviting every Rage Moment, real or faux, that would ever come. Compared to “Train Kept a Rollin’,” punk was a pale ghost, passing by, leaving no mark.

Memphis Rage was real. In the early 70’s, my oldest nephew (five years older than me) ran the Memphis streets with a kid named Kenny Black who was Bill Black’s nephew. My sister owned a bar with Kenny’s mom, who was Bill’s sister-in-law. Nobody thought much about it. That was just Memphis. Most of my nephew’s more colorful stories, which might include anything from dodging Bowie knives to egging hookers on Beale Street and being chased through the more polite neighborhoods by their pistol-wielding pimps, involved Kenny some way or other. My nephew got out and learned what the tourists learn–that the Memphis Streets are a lot more romantic the further away you get even if you never stop loving them like a mother. He was a long way grown up twenty years later when Kenny Black, who never grew up, was found beaten to death on those same streets.

He had learned what  his uncle and Elvis, and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, and Al Jackson, Jr. and oh-so-many others had learned long since. The Streets of Memphis are real and you can run but you can’t hide.

The Rock and Roll Trio were the only band who caught that feeling all the way down to the cracks in the asphalt. That sound is here and nowhere else. It’s in Johnny’s voice, Dorsey’s background yowls, Paul’s howling guitar. It’s in the way Johnny could take on “Honey Hush” once property of Big Joe Turner, the meanest, toughest, slyest blues shouter alive, and make it sound like the “authentic” voice of a man who really was about to take out his woman with a baseball bat.

Come to think of it, one can understand why so many nice people stayed away…in the 50’s and now.

Next up: Warren Zevon

JUST KEEP IT FRIENDLY…(Mac Davis, R.I.P.)

Mac Davis was relaxed even for his own time. He couldn’t have had a career in this time. Our loss.

As the composer of “In the Ghetto,” “don’t Cry Daddy,” “Memories” and “A Little Less Conversation” his importance to Elvis Presley’s late 60’s comeback was incalculable and second to none. Same for his Elvis stories, which were invariably warm but believable, the stories of an authentic friendship as opposed to dining out on a brush with greatness.

But when he passed (the same day as Helen Reddy), my immediate memories were of the happiness he delivered on his short-lived variety show where he seemed both more relaxed and less likely to take a wooden nickel than anyone on television. That combination always infused his own best records, some of which were heard by all…

some by quite a few…

and some by almost no one….

Hey Chris, that last one’s for you and Big Mac and the memories.

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]