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.
I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).
Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.
I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.
Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.
Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.
9) Arthur BakerGive in to the Rhythm (1991)
Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.
8) Various ArtistsLouisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)
Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection. Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!
7) Harold Melvin and the Blue NotesIf You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)
One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.
6) John LennonLennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)
Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”
That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.
5) Various ArtistsBrown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)
I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.
“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.
Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.
Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.
4) Brenda LeeI’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)
To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.
3) Robert JohnsonThe Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)
The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.
And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.
That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.
2) Various ArtistsThe Disco Box (1999)
A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit. There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.
Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.
Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).
Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.
And kudos to the programmer.
You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….
Til next time!
*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.
Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):
My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)
My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)
My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)
My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)
My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)
I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.
But have no fear. You can file all that away.
You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.
Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).
Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.
But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.
To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.
And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.
It helps if you sold a lot of records.
Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.
So there’s the criteria.
Only two people ever met every standard for me.
Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:
Al Green or Patty Loveless.
Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?
I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.
For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.
Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.
Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).
As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.
As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.
After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…
bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).
Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).
Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.
Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.
Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.
Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…
Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…
and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…
(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).
Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.
Each walked down.
In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter
In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.
Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.
Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.
Neither has a true inheritor.
Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.
The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).
There are no weak tracks in either catalog.
One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.
It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.
And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…
For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.
And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.
No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.
They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.
But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.
I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?
Who really knows?
We all have our opinions.
You can probably guess mine.
What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.
And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.
You can hear it coming, happening, landing….
In neither instance was the case made with words.
Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.
The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.
But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.
It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.
They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.
They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.
I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:
I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).
It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.
“Sing for us!” it said.
Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.
Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.
I don’t know if it ever really happened.
But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.
They sang for us.
Choose between them?
Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.
“Wake Up Everybody” (Full-length Version) Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes Writers: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen
(NOTE: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to renew my commitment to some of my neglected categories here. This particular category was one of my principal reasons for starting this blog and I’m a little taken aback to discover I haven’t added any new entries for over a year. I’ve got the usual excuse: So much to do, so little time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah! But I hereby resolve to do better…starting now!)
“Wake Up Everybody” is the closest anyone has ever come to putting a full-blown sermon on the charts.
There’s not a lot of critical exegesis available on the song so Dave Marsh’s take in his invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is probably as good a place to start as any:
If uniting opposites appeals to you, then you’ll love this fusion of (producers) Gamble and Huff’s spit-polished and intoxicated disco narcissism and Teddy Pendergrass’s gravelly post-gospel sermonizing. Pendergrass’s insistence that “the world won’t get no better if we just let it be” in the face of the arrangement’s full-blown hedonism amounts to a doctoral thesis discrepancy. None of which implies an effective synthesis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get one. For instance, that guitar is fiddling with blues figures and Teddy’s singing matter-of-factly modulates between the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Dells’ Marvin Junior.
Now there’s a lot I disagree with in that paragraph (though I give Marsh enormous credit for taking on what has never been a fashionable assignment–writing about singles, singers generally, and black singers in particular, as though they are deserving of serious exegesis). But the main place the analysis falls apart is in its clear misunderstanding of what, exactly constitutes “sermonizing.”
Because it’s not narcissism–“intoxicated” or otherwise–that’s at work during this winding-and-building seven minute epic (nor, I should add, in the edited-for-45 version which Marsh was specifically critiquing).
The pursuit of healing-through-ecstasy is not the same thing as hedonism and it’s not the same thing as narcissism.
Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal isn’t at odds with the production, even on the shorter version. And, in the long version, he uses that production as a springboard to vault both himself and anybody who cares to listen into something higher and purer.
Of all the things rock critics tend to misunderstand about the music they cover, their utter incomprehension of “gospel”–as either musical style, life experience or, you know, expression of actual religious faith–surely runs deepest.
When you are after redeeming a lost world, bringing light to the darkness, sustaining hope in the face of personal, communal or societal despair–when you carry the specific personal and communal burden of knowing none of this higher ground will be reached by anyone, ever, unless you reach it first–there are times when you have to abandon sense.
Occasionally, a preacher trying to reach his flock, simply has to find some way of saying, “Free your heart, and your mind will follow.”
So “Wake Up Everybody” is one of the deepest spiritual records ever made despite a lyric that sustains a complete and almost studied absence of profundity.
Intellectual profundity that is.
Preachers are not philosophers. They have to wed the message to the heart.
It’s only then that the head has a chance to follow.
Consider 1976, when this record peaked on the charts.
America had entered a period when peace and prosperity should have reigned but which had, instead, become a kind of national hangover from the nightmares of war and riot and assassination and scandal.
The seeds of our current rot had been planted, most of them (especially the economic ones) quite deliberately and with malice aforethought.
And what Blue Notes’ lead singer Pendergrass was tasked with, on what is arguably Gamble and Huff’s greatest production and Philadelphia International’s surest statement of visionary purpose, was facing down the future.
Blow by blow.
“Wake-up-everybody-no-more-sleeping-in-bed” flows like an old Chuck Berry line, with gospel (not “post-gospel” which is a nonsense phrase) fervor and desperation substituted for wit and wordplay.
And, lyrically at least, the song doesn’t get much deeper or more complicated than that opening line.
That’s because when you are facing down a future that will be very bleak indeed if hearts and minds are not moved in concert (and now…TODAY), there isn’t time for all that. Wit and wordplay are privileges for other times. Those times (say Chuck Berry’s fifties) may not be “better,” but they afford an inherent leisure. Play, “word” and otherwise, is a luxury the evangelist cannot afford.
The world might have been blown to smithereens in those other times, but a world blown to smithereens is an abstraction.
In the pulpit, the preacher cannot always and forever deal in abstractions. Some of the time, his message has to be about the here and now. And the here and now must be attacked fiercely, devoid of irony, that quality which, however sublime, has little mercy and cannot heal the sickness now being confronted.
Hence, this sermon, titled “Wake Up Everybody,” is concrete in its banalities: “Dope dealers….Stop pushing that dope! Dope users….Stop using the dope!”
And, from there, it proceeds to the abandonment of even literal sense.
“Preachers…stop teaching what you preach!”
Or is it, stop preaching what you teach?
Or start teaching what you preach?
Pendergrass’ choked reading is barely decipherable. I can never quite hold it in my mind, would trust no lyric sheet to set me straight, because, however I hear it–or remember it–I always find a disorienting absence of linear sense.
But I know exactly what he means.
And I suspect “everybody” else does, too.
Even the people who saw a world where the ripe fruit of the American Experiment was sucked to a dry husk–you know, the America they’ve made come to pass–as a dream to be fulfilled rather than a nightmare to be avoided.
They might turn their heads–boy did they, boy do they–but they can still hear.
So Teddy Pendergrass, the preacher, keeps shouting.
The way he lifts off in the temporizing part of this record–the part that makes for the “long edit” which, in those days, was usually understood to be strictly for dancers–makes it harder to ignore at the very moment most “disco” records have the non-dancer in me either nodding out or focusing strictly on what the bass player is getting up to.
The sermon goes on and on, then. It ebbs and flows.
But the spiritual underpinning never dissipates.
Instead, it starts firming up.
Then it starts rising, lifting the listener–he who WILL LISTEN RIGHT NOW–to the preacher’s own higher ground.
Teddy Pendergrass was the rare urban singer who was completely at home with southern-style testifying. Here, Gamble and Huff add to this already electrifying blend by double-voicing the lead (i.e., overlapping the end of one line with the beginning of another without switching vocalists–a form of speaking in tongues, by then becoming commonly available to modern studio wizardry, which every Pentecostal preacher then living might have benefited from investigating had they not been so busy denouncing both the music and the technology as tools of the Devil, often while seeking corporate sponsorship, of course). This has the effect of riveting we, the listeners–locking us into the message–at the very moment when we could reasonably expect a release to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”
So, yeah, it’s a sermon. Sure it is.
But none of the folks involved here ever forget they’re also making a record.
A record they expect to be a hit, even if–black radio having no real equivalent of white radio’s long formats, something that would, say, allow a bit of Celtic mysticism like “Stairway to Heaven” to be played as incessantly as a three-minute hit single and keep on being played (all nine minutes of it) for forty years and counting–they have to chop part of it off.
A hit record just the same, though, and one that will have a chance to bridge gaps in understanding. In this case, a hit record that constitutes a call, from the mouth of a Black America forever seeking existential justice (here, as so often, rooted in the New Testament evangelism which is the closest thing the two races have to a truly core, truly common culture), to the ear of a White America which has permanent difficulty getting past the particulars of whatever individual case is presently in question.
Hello, this year’s headlines.
This past year’s, of course.
But, really, any year.
Because, after double-voiced Teddy Pendergrass and the classically trained white orchestras Gamble and Huff arranged so seamlessly and magnificently into the sound of their street level politics (and, yes, Sunday morning sermonizing), have journeyed to the mountain top and taken us along–after somebody (lyricist, producer, singer, Holy Ghost) has nailed “You businessmen” with the one hammer blow (“Stop cheatin’!”) amongst all these “simple” remedies to evil that keeps repeating (six times to be exact–this after even dope got no more than a double-blow), because somebody wants to remind “everybody” just where the root of all that evil lies–this seven-and-a-half-minute record comes down, in its final minute, to Pendergrass alone, sounding like a man who can’t lie down and can’t take another step, caught between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Sin, looking yonder into the Promised Land, which is close enough to touch and a thousand miles away, saying just this:
It don’t matter…
Oh, what race…
Creed or color…
We need each other.
Here on Earth, there’s no more powerful reminder of the gospel’s twin purpose–to search for higher ground while providing shelter from the storm–than this record, which reached #12 on the Pop chart and #1 R&B, in 1976, when it must have seemed that we wouldn’t–couldn’t–possibly ever need its message more.
These days, when we’re living with the consequences of not having listened, I guess the hopeful New Testament evangelists of “we need each other” could wearily add an Old Testament coda.
We enter 2015 with the specter of a 2016 presidential race likely to offer a choice between….a Clinton and a Bush.
Back in the hey-day of “the Rising,” when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (the Isaiah and Jeremiah of the movement) ruled the charts and warned us about the future, they wrote and/or produced a clutch of salient “political” statements. Most of the best of these (as is usually the case with such things) were records like “Backstabbers” or “Only the Strong Survive” that came disguised as something else.
Something like the O’Jays’ “Rich Get Richer”–with its famous (and admittedly un-poetic) paranoid line, “there’s only sixteen families that control the whole world…I read that in a book ya’ll”–used to make the intelligentsia roll their eyes and suggest that the boys (politely, of course, always politely) get back to the groove and leave politics and such to those sophisticated enough to know better.
Sixteen families to control the whole world.
Always trying to get more than they give.
Jeb vs. Hilary in 2016.
Sounds like Leon and Kenny may have set the number a little high.
Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):
Now to the main point:
A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.
But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.
And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.
See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.
Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.
Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.
So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):
Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.
Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.
Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.
Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.
Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.
John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.
Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.
Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.
Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.
Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.
AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.
Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.
Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.
Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)
Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.
Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.
Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.
Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”
Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.
The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?
Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)
Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.
Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.
The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.
Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.
BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”
Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).
Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.
There is certainly some validity to that.
But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.
That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.
Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.
But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).
Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).
Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.
To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.
As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.
The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).
According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.
“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”
What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”
What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.
* * * *
For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.
The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.
As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).
As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)
Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).
Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.
Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).
Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.
And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.
Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.
We shouldn’t really be surprised.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.
I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.
If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.
* * * *
So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?
Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–
…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”
or, better yet…
“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”
Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.
But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”
Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.
In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.
Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.
And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.
That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.
His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.
Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”
It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.
“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.
A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.
Ours did not.
After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.
But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.
What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.
It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.
Don’t throw this away.
Don’t throw US away.
In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.
It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.
And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us:
“We got to talking about some writer from Yale who’d complained about how Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations were experimenting with new sounds like the wah-wah pedal. He’d said it ruined the purity of R&B. We thought artists should use everything around them and Kenny said ‘Hey, only the strong survive.’ I added in some things I’d heard growing up and 45 minutes later, we had a song.”
Jerry Butler, on the inspiration for “Only the Strong Survive,” the most monumental record to come from the sessions that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff used as the foundation stone, both creative and commercial, for The Sound of Philadelphia, i.e. what black music would get up to in the seventies and then some.
(Source: Liner notes, The Philadelphia Sessions: The Iceman Cometh, Ice on Ice and More, 2001)
Update: No word on whether the Yalie in question ever joined Weatherman. Just know that he was evidently simpatico. The terror masters are always really good at telling others what they should think of themselves.
I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.
The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:
“This is great!”
“This is fun.”
Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).
So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.
To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.
I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”
Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.
Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.
Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.
I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.
I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.
I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.
But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.
To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up: