10) The Miracles Greatest Hits From the Beginning (1965)
Even after the old three record Anthology from the 70’s and one of the greatest box sets ever from the 90’s, this is still part of every basic record library. Nowhere else can you experience the unadulterated joy and pain of the young Smokey Robinson quite so purely or all at once or so connected to his (and Motown’s) doo wop roots. When you’re listening, it’s impossible to believe that he actually got better.
9) Various Artists Atlantic Jazz: Kansas City (1986)
This was part of an extensive series the Atlantic label issued in the 1980’s to exploit their considerable Jazz catalog. It’s the only one I picked up along the way and this is probably only the second time I’ve listened to it. Put it this way: It has me considering tracking down the whole series.
8) Burning Spear Rocking Time (1974)
This is the album Winston Rodney released just before his monumental Marcus Garvey which, especially in its double-cd tandem Garvey’s Ghost (which Greil Marcus once called surf music with slave ships on the horizon, a description that will never be bettered) is one of the essential albums of all time. My copy’s on the original Studio One label and I can’t say whether the scratchy quality is from a primitive recording or just crappy vinyl. Somehow it adds to the music’s ghostly quality. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the nerve to listen close.
7) Jerry Butler The Best of Jerry Butler (1970)
A talisman of my life. If more people could say the same, the world would be a better place, because from this distance the Iceman sounds like a man trying to heal a world that pointedly and specifically refused the medicine and opted for nihilism instead. Wonder how that’s working out…
6) Jackie Wilson Jackie Sings the Blues (1960)
A recent discovery and a miracle. The only overlap with his various excellent comps is “Doggin’ Around.” I always wondered what a whole album of Jackie in “Doggin’ Around” mode would sound like. Now I know: Epochal.
5) Various Artists Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)
A trash metal soundtrack to a desultory movie about a desultory time, broken by occasional nods to nascent hip hop…And elevated to permanent relevance by two startling sides: LL Cool J’s sly, menacing “Going Back to Cali” and the Bangles complete re-imagining of Paul Simon’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” as a hard rock anthem to die for, both of which evoke the hellish landscape of 80’s America far better than the movie did.
4) Various Artists Beserkley Chartbusters Volume I (1975)
The most famous power pop compilation from the most famous power pop label. Not bad but I can never help remembering that Raspberries had already taken this concept as far as it could go so it mostly makes me want to listen to Raspberries.
3) Jefferson Airplane Volunteers (1969)
This has been in heavy rotation on my turntable of late. I can’t imagine why. What with the proof that 1969 never really ended because we never really resolved its contradictions all over the news yet again maybe I keep thinking that if this is never going to provide the answers it will at least lead me back to a clarification of the questions. Not bad for a bunch of Limo Libs. Still the first album I’d play for a youngster who wanted to begin understanding the Sixties.
2) Spirit The Best of Spirit (1973)
They made good albums, but this is still my go-to, maybe just because, in 1979, when I bought it, it was the only thing available in the malls of America. Or maybe just because it’s great on its own. They didn’t really need conceptual LPs. They were a conceptual band and they had that one quality that makes any artist prone to being under-appreciated: There was no one else like them. Get your ass to the animal zoo indeed.
1) Dusty Springfield Golden Hits (1966)
One of these days I’m going to start a category for Perfect Albums or maybe just Perfect Things. This might be Exhibit A. My copy survived the Great Jefferson Arms Apartments Flood of 1981. (Fair enough as the flood was technically started by me–personally I blame whoever reversed the threads on the hot water handle in the bathroom sink, which made it a dangerous proposition to leave for work when the water had been cut off in the middle of shaving. Probably because they were shutting down a flood somewhere else in the complex….And I thought the roaches were bad before! I did feel bad about inadvertently terrorizing the cocker spaniel next door. The cute girl who owned him was at work too.) I could afford an undamaged cover now I guess, but somehow it would feel like messing with karma to replace anything that has spent forty years making me smile.
‘Til next time….Hope this Popsicle stand hasn’t burned to the ground by then!
“The thing that always amazed me about Sandy, was that she thought she actually could appeal to the masses. Of course she couldn’t….If you’re writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you’re not going to be in the charts.”
(Linda Thompson, wife of Sandy Denny’s greatest band-mate Richard Thompson–quoted in The Guardian, May 5, 2005)
There have been times and places where writing songs “people could shoot themselves to” has been something that could get you “in the charts” in a heartbeat.
Ask Kurt Cobain. Ask Amy Winehouse.
Ask Billie Holiday (whose “God Bless the Child,” which, yes, she wrote, didn’t go in the charts but did inspire countless covers and suicides).
Maybe Sandy Denny was just out of her time.
Else too perfectly of her time.
If she was ever too perfectly in tune with times no sane person would have wanted to be in tune with, it was 1969, when, after taking the band by storm at her audition, she released three mind-bending albums with Fairport Convention, thus inventing an English version of folk rock which had no precedents and–once Sandy Denny left the planet in such short order–could have no heirs.
By her third album with Fairport, Liege & Lief, she had taken command.
Being the sort of whirlwind spirit you’d expect on the evidence of Linda Thompson’s quote, the music she made in ’69 (the year she almost made it in the charts) and every picture she ever took, she then moved on: to another band; to a solo career; to a duet with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on his band’s most monumental album that was a match for any vocal in the history of sound.
And thence to a solo career and a downward spiral into alcoholism, depression, self-destruction, coma and death.
All within eight years.
Listening to her in ’69, when it must have been possible–for her or anyone–to think no one who sang with that much death in her voice could possibly fail to become an era-defining star while so much death was in the air, one is compelled to wonder whether her future, or ours, could have been different.
1969 was not just any year historically, nor was it just any year vocally.
It was the year of Elvis Presley’s Memphis sessions, Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions (which were then re-created in New York), Jerry Butler’s Iceman sessions, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Merle Haggard’s usual three fine albums, Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”–great enough to bridge “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and What’s Going On–and that’s just a sampling of the big names).
For life-defining vocals, no year ran deeper.
And Sandy Denny might have had the greatest year of all.
In any year, her combination of power and delicacy was unique. The number of vocalists who could go toe-to-toe with Robert Plant at full tilt is limited. Those who could then deploy a wistful soprano to dive as far inside a song as Billie Holiday make up a list of one.
It is hard to be one of anything.
It must have been something more than hard (and I almost wrote “worse” when I might have meant “better”–she’ll do that to you) to carry the spirit of Stonehenge single-handed into the Age of Aquarius.
Perhaps that’s why, as the year goes on–record by record–she sounds more desperate and more determined.
Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep she sings on the year’s midpoint second album (Unhalfbricking, which also contained her rollicking French version, definitive in any language and her one ride up the charts, of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”). The lines are Bob Dylan’s. The moment she sings them, you know they’ll never again belong to him or anyone else.
Except maybe the other version of Sandy Denny, who laid down another album or two’s worth of stellar work on the BBC in the same year she made What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege & Lief :
To listen to it all at once is to be swamped by the notion that sex and desire-the things rock and roll had seemed designed to liberate–have been turned into a series of dungeons under a world of prisons.
If that sounds like a fun place to be then the Sandy Denny of Liege &Lief, in particular, will be the love of your life and–except for maybe the Sandy Denny of other albums here and there–all substitutes will seem silly by comparison.
Even I, with my interest in singers who might have made a deal with the Devil, (because, darn it, deals with the Devil are inherently interesting even if they’re also inherently speculative), have to acknowledge something deeper than speculation is at work in Denny’s voice. Like God, Satan moves in mysterious ways…only the True Believers, the Fundamentalist and the Atheist, forever joined at the hip, manage to convince themselves of either his obviousness or his absence.
And, spectacular as her range was, it was only half the story. Calling her a hard soprano only goes part-way to explaining how she relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion, reached places unavailable to other sopranos. The rest is mystery.
Her first two Fairport albums drew plenty of comparisons to the Band, which was odd since the Band created musical excitement by trading rough-hewn voices, fitted into each other by thousands of nights on the road, while Denny’s band seemed built to contain her one minute and elevate her the next.
She and her mates were barely together a year-and-a-half and spent enough of that time in the studio to record three albums, the last in the throes of an accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn–and I wonder if anyone thought Death wasn’t going to follow Sandy Denny around?
Not these people surely….
That’s where the Fairport/Denny collaboration started. In the space of two albums it went everywhere. Well, everywhere Death went anyway. In the beginning, Iain Matthews could lay down what I’ll swear to this day is a vocal nobody could snatch from under him–and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I never believe even powerhouse Sandy Denny could take it away until the very moment, at the top of the third line, when she does….by going quieter….Or that anyone could grab it back after handing it back the first time….until, with a single powerhouse interpolation in the fade, she does.
All that plus her standard, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which she’d already recorded with Strawbs in ’67, and seen become a hit for Judy Collins, who had every bit of Denny’s range and none of her mystery–none of her relationship with the Middle Ages, or her certainty, circa 1969, that the future was just one more past waiting to be reborn), and none of it really preps you for where she took the band, the world and herself on Liege & Lief.
Lief, released in December, Fairport’s third album in twelve months, is essentially a Denny solo record (albeit with strong support), and here at last is what she had probably had in mind all along–what Linda Thompson meant when she gave the quote above, years after Denny’s death. It’s an album filled with murder and other morbid sorts of ballads and a vocal approach so devoid of pop sheen it makes Music from Big Pink sound like The Archies Dig Christmas!
It’s not an easy listen, either aesthetically or emotionally. Getting it, even getting at it, requires a spiritual and physical commitment something akin to what the singer is putting in from the other side.
Death and Sex in other words.
You up for that?
If you are–and I was, once–be prepared to encounter not merely a bleak vision but an intricately defined twilight world, full of sharp detail one moment and movement in the shadows that never moves from the corner of your mind’s eye the next, where everyone’s trapped behind castle walls and the only viable sex is an endless cycle of rape and childbirth and revenge where and you will love your child is a curse.
You didn’t forget she had a deal with the Devil did you?
It turned out the Sandy Denny who chased stardom through three bands in four years and laid down tracks as scarifying as this along the way…
was only playing around.
Her voice had always been poised between acceptance and revenge.
I’ll kill myself…but only if I convince myself I can’t kill you instead.
There was always more than a hint of real terror in the concept and it’s heightened on Liege & Lief, where”Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” go on forever…until you get them, after which you’re mostly just afraid for them to end.
This is not the silliness of something like The Handmaid’s Tale….a fantasy about a future world ruled by Fundamentalist Christians who have developed ideas about women and fertility that are remarkably similar to those of certain contemporary jihadis Margaret Atwood or the honchos at Hulu dare not call out for fear of discovering who the really dangerous people are. No, it’s dread that predates our modern ideas of merely having fantasies spoiled and calling it persecution.
At least that was how I heard it the last time I listened…maybe the first time I truly got it.
I could imagine the spell–that is the right word–breaking.
I could wake up tomorrow and find it gone. I could imagine never listening to Liege & Lief again (though, oddly, not “Nottamun Town.”) I could imagine being relieved if that were the case.
But I know I’d be a fool if I tricked myself into thinking I had reached a better understanding or gotten to the bottom of the dungeon.
What Sandy Denny produced in 1969–the way she used that hard soprano’s most startling and pitiless elements to invent a world as new as tomorrow’s gloomy sunrise and discover one as old as a cave painting–was a body of work any artist worthy of the name would kill for if only it could be got by bending to man’s baser nature.
Alas, 1969 was the peak.
Perhaps there was nowhere to go but down.
In any case, down she went.
There was another year, another band (Fotheringay). Then she rode high with Led Zeppelin in their finest hour (as their only guest vocalist and you can hear why even they might have been a little shy of taking it any further). She partied hard with the rowdiest English rock and rollers, determined to drink every one of them under the table. She made four solo albums.
There was a tempestuous marriage and a child who was soon taken from her for the child’s own good.
Then she took to making dramatic falls, some intentional, some not. Some down stairways, one of which finally damaged her brain.
Either that or the booze finally put her in a coma, where, in 1978, six weeks before I graduated high school, blissfully and painfully unaware of her existence, she died of old age at 31, still waiting, in some sense, to be discovered by the people who wanted to shoot themselves.
One more victim of the 60s. then.
I expect she’ll still be here–or there–when we’re all back where we belong.
It’s easy to assume that the digital age has preserved everything. Even the black and hillbilly stuff. But there are still more than a few holes in our Paradise’s memory banks. Here’s ten of the hundreds I’d like to see plugged. listed more or less chronologically. No bonus tracks needed. Just put them out. Bear Family. Hip-O. Raven. Ace. Somebody…
1) Louis Armstrong: The Louis Armstrong Story Volume 4: Favorites
A stellar collection of Armstrong’s early thirties’ ballads, which may have been even more influential than his smoking small band sides from the twenties. They were certainly more subversive and, while they’ve been collected numerous times in larger formats and this set has probably been approximated somewhere or other among the voluminous Armstrong re-issues, the precision of this particular collection is sufficiently burned in my memory to make me loath to accept any substitutes. I listen to these songs compiled any other way and they simply feel incomplete. In that respect, you might consider this the first concept LP. Of course “Black and Blue” is the all time killer, but for pure perversity, don’t sleep on “Shine.” which works in this context as a kind of answer record.
2) The Coasters Their Greatest Recordings…The Early Years
Still the best way to hear the Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Fourteen diamond hard classics that represent the cream of 50s’ era vocal group R&B, plus the songwriting and producing pinnacle of Leiber and Stoller’s not exactly one-dimensional career. Best CD Substitute is 50 Coastin’ Classics, which is fabulous and never quits either. But sometimes you just want a shot of Rhythm and Blues…not the whole bottle. Plus, it’s the only place you can find Barret “Dr. Demento” Hansen’s fabulous liner notes. Yet more proof, if any is needed, that record company comps can make their own irreducible statement.
3) The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Again With the Everly Brothers
Okay, so you’ll kind of have to take my word for it that that’s the name of it and it was a real thing. That picture is the best I could find. This collection was released on GRT records–one of those seventies’ era subsidiary labels of dubious virtue–and was the kind of mishmash you might have expected…except it was, by happy accident, also a superb overview of the brothers’ legend-making career on Cadence, where they made most of the records we still remember them by. Unlike pretty much every other comp restricted to that era I’ve seen on vinyl or CD, it’s spiced with a few cuts from their great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP. And, cheap knockoff or no, I swear it sounds great, too. If you wanted a CD that caught all the excitement of the early Everlys without having to listen to an entire box set, or all their period LPs at once, this would fill the ticket before anything else. GRT went bankrupt in 1979, so I won’t be holding my breath on this one. But I can dream, can’t I?
4) The Impressions: The Vintage Years
I’ve written at length about this one before. It blends half a dozen career phases seamlessly (Jerry Butler, early and late, the Impressions from doo wop to early sixties r&b to mid-sixties’ soul, capped off by Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly breakout) and tracks black music from the street corner where “Your Precious Love” was conceived to the street corner where Freddie, the small time loser headed for the graveyard in Superfly, hangs out, without telling you whether it’s the same one or ever letting you forget it might be. No CD era reissue has come close, because none have fused all those careers together, let alone accepted them as being of a piece. If more people recognized this as the greatest concept album ever made, the world would be a better place.
5) Buffalo Springfield
Not their eponymous first LP, which is readily available. This two-record retrospective was how most of us from the hinterlands, who discovered them in the late seventies when their regular LPs were a bit hard to find at Camelot or Record Bar, first heard them. It’s probably still the best way, outstanding though all the other ways be. But the real reason me and a lot of other folks want this to be on CD is because it still seems to be the only place you can find the long version of “Bluebird.” Except for YouTube, of course…
6) Fairport Convention: Fairport Chronicles
This superbly chosen and programmed two-record set, which can only be approximated now by buying five or six separate CDs by Fairport, Fotheringay. The Bunch and Sandy Denny, then mixing them on the re-recording device of your choice, hasn’t even come close to being matched by any CD era release. And this group, which cries out for a definitive box set that focuses on their early career and its various immediate off-shoots, is represented instead by sets that include their “entire career,” meaning due deference is paid to decades of fey folk music the in-name-only pros who kept the name alive made after Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny departed for their respective fates as aging eccentric and most-inevitable-young-corpse-ever. Their three definitive albums (What We Did On Our Holiday, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) are great beyond words (and easily available on CD). But this is by far the best place to hear Thompson’s “Sloth,” the Bunch’s revelatory covers of Dion and Buddy Holly, and Fotheringay turning Gordon Lightfoot into King Dread on “The Way I Feel,” all essential. This exercise is partly tongue in cheek…but this is one of those things somebody really should fix dammit!
7) Brenda Lee Memphis Portrait
See, I don’t even have this. I should probably just bite the bullet and spring for a cheap used version off Amazon or something. But Jesus, can somebody please release Brenda’s late-sixties and seventies albums in the new format? All of them? Any of them? The Bear Family doesn’t even have these recordings on a box. They and Ace have both done thorough jobs of making her prime hit-making years and before (1956 to 1963 roughly) available. The rest has been left to float in the ether. I’ve heard enough of it to know that shouldn’t be so.
8) Johnny Bush: Bush Country
I don’t have to speculate about this one. it’s been a staple of my collection since John Morthland turned me on to Johnny with his invaluable guide to the greatest country albums (that was released just as the CD era arrived). A couple of his other albums for Stop–where he was never less than inspired–have made it to CD but not this one, which is as hard as hard country gets and doesn’t have a wasted second. If nothing else, this–one of the greatest records ever made–deserves a home on some format more permanent than vinyl. But, really, the whole thing, including killer versions of “It’s All in the Game,” “Statue of a Fool” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” back-to-back-to-back, is up to the same standard. There’s no finer vocal album in any genre.
9) Tanya Tucker: Here’s Some Love
Along about now, you’ll be detecting a theme here–Nashville has not done a good job of taking care of its legacy. Such value as there’s been has mostly been provided by overseas reissue labels (with Bear Family preeminent, though by no means alone). No one, home or abroad, has yet stepped into the breach and released Tanya’s string of child-into-woman albums recorded between her departure from Columbia and her mid-eighties comeback. This is from early on (1976). The deathless title cut (a natural country #1) is readily available on numerous comps, and all these albums were a touch uneven. But they all had great, hidden things on them, too. “Round and Round the Bottle” is up to the standards of her early Gothics, and the two-step from “Gonna Love You Anyway” to “Holding On” used to keep me up nights.
10) The Kendalls: Old Fashioned Love
Yes, the whole list could have been devoted to lost country albums from the seventies. Heck the whole list could have been devoted to the Kendalls. If I wanted to put together a list of the ten most beautiful vocals ever recorded, I wouldn’t consider having Jeannie Kendall occupy less than half of it. That her greatest records (the four albums she and her father made for Ovation, beginning with Heaven’s Just a Sin Away), have never been re-released in any format is the kind of thing I like to point to when I talk about how civilizations decline and fall. That she is remembered, if at all, for even as great a cheating song as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” is something like a national sin–testimony to how casually we throw talent away after having misunderstood it in the first place. Not that she ever sounded like she expected any better, especially on this, a concept LP about cheating as redemption. And yes, it blew everybody’s minds back when, especially the open marriage crowd at all the hip rock and roll mags, who suddenly decided they were Puritans after all. “PIttsburgh Stealers” wasn’t the half of it. They did plenty of good work before and after (I especially recommend Mercury’s Movin’ Train), but If anybody ever has the sense to release their four Ovation LPs as a box set, it will be one of the essential documents in country music.
(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)
The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.
The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”
I couldn’t tell them.
(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)
I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.
All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).
And that was all I was ever able to do.
Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.
She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…
* * * *
My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).
(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)
There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.
The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):
Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”
“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”
I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.
By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.
* * * *
You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).
But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.
In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.
And a smart aleck.
One day, in my full-blown smart-alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and a half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”
One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.
Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.
As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference. . . .Right away.”
By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”
And, God help me, you could.
That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.
But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.
She taught me.
One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment which time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.
And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.
Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).
Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:
One day I was listening to this…
…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”
Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…
My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”
Another day, this…
…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”
Another day, this (just out on the radio)…
The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.
Voices. Or maybe just sounds.
Another day, this…
My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”
Voices. Or sounds.
Another day, it might be this…
And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!
(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)
Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…
And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.
(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)
Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.
They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.
They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.
They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten-year-old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.
If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.
And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.
Here’s to then. . . .And to Voices. And sounds.
Happy Mother’s Day!
(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)
1) I didn’t include solo artists who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of a group or one off groups who contain Hall of Fame members (so no Jerry Butler or Derek and the Dominoes for instance).
2) I didn’t include comps (no Dionne Warwick, Paul Revere and the Raiders, etc. who I know mostly through greatest hits packages).
3) I didn’t include anyone who has been inducted in one of the “extra” categories (so no Carole King, since she’s in as a songwriter).
4) I didn’t include anyone who isn’t eligible yet (No Roots or Moby, for instance….you’d be surprised how often this comes up in on-line discussions…for the record, an artist becomes eligible in the “Performer” category 25 years after the Hall determines they released their first record).
5) As the title of this post indicates, I didn’t include artists who have been nominated but not inducted (so no War or Spinners, who would otherwise have multiple entries)
6) This is not an argument that any or all of these acts should actually be in the Hall of Fame. Some should be, some shouldn’t, but I’ve made those arguments elsewhere (you can check the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame category on the right for further details if interested).
All that to keep it simple. Like to 25 or so**. Otherwise it was gonna get complicated. (**Note, that 25 was a general number for the total. Pretty sure it’s gonna be more like 30…or so. I keep remembering.)
So, in roughly chronological order (by year, but I didn’t look up month and day for those in the same year):
The Shangri-Las I Can Never Go Home Any More (1965)
Note: I’ve never actually owned this album. I do have the original release Shangri-Las 65, which would be worthy on its own. This drops “Dum, Dum Ditty” (perhaps their weakest track) and adds the title track (one of their greatest) so it’s a no-brainer it’s the better album, even before taking the killer cover photo into consideration. I have a private theory that this cast a longer and deeper shadow than Rubber Soul. Me and Amy Winehouse are going to collaborate on a white paper proving this theory next time we get together at the big think tank in the sky. No neocons allowed.
Note: A racially transgressive sound that’s still radical. Oh, what might have been.
Pick to Click: “Signed DC” (pretty sure the Moody Blues cashed the intro into “Nights in White Satin”…roughly speaking)
Love Forever Changes (1967)
Note: This is enough of a touchstone of its era it actually creates a backlash of sorts. You can prove how hip you are by preferring some other Love album to this one. Heck, you might even be right. I’ll just make my own distinction by saying several of Love’s other albums are great. This one’s on the order of a miracle. (Even with the guess-you-had-to-be-there cover, which will be a developing theme here!)
Note: American version of an LP that was called Mighty Garvey in England (with a slightly different track selection). In case that and the cover aren’t 1968 enough for you, it actually has a (wonderful) song called “Cubist Town.” Didn’t sell, even though the title track was a big hit, and didn’t get them any street cred, even though it didn’t sell. I picked it up on a very strange and exhilarating day in 1979 which also involved Boone, North Carolina, a surly record store manager, choir practice, “Beach Baby,” “Cruel War,” a made-for-TV Monkees comp and my first ever speeding ticket. Basically the kind of day you can only have when you’re eighteen. Either that or in a dollar store somewhere a short time later. The memory hazes. Either way, It’s been making me smile ever since.
Note: Most of the soul giants have at least been nominated. No love for Clarence. Then again he never sounded like a guy who expected to be treated fairly and on his first album, his mournful side meshed perfectly with his definitivelly wicked sense of the absurd.
Note: Did somebody mention 1968? Based on the cover, South might have been hanging out at Haight-Asbury. He was actually hanging out in Nashville and Atlanta which meant the entire world had gone crazy or he was some kind of visionary who couldn’t be explained by ordinary marketing schemes. I’ll take both. The still, small voice in the back of everyone’s mind, who stayed there even after “Games People Play” broke wide open.
The Turtles The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (1968)
Note: Chasing cred, they parodied themselves and everybody else. They sort of got the cred and would have really gotten it if the biggest parody (“Elenore”) hadn’t gone top ten everywhere in the English-speaking world. That’s all very representative. It should have been a catastrophe on every level. Instead it came out…wistful. They probably liked themselves better than they thought.
Pick to Click: “Earth Anthem” (or else “Surfer Dan”…some choices really are too existential to permit any sort of oppressive concept like finality)
Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country
Note: Actually this and Mother Earth’s Living With the Animals got swept away in the great CD selloff of 2002 (along with about 98 percent of the collection I had been building for fifteen years…life’s for making mistakes and regretting them as they say) and I’ve never managed to either forget or replace them. There’s nothing here to match Animals’ “Down So Low” but my memory is that this one was more cohesive. Brilliant in any case and as foundational of the alt-country concept as anything Gram Parsons was involved in.
Fairport Convention What We Did on Our Holidays (1969)
Note: Let’s put it this way. The name of the album is What We Did on Our Holidays. One of the cheerier tracks is called “The Lord Is in This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place.” That’s telling it like it is baby!
Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.
It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.
That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).
Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.
This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.
Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.
I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.
The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.
Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.
The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal
The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.
The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.
The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.
The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.
They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.
No big deal.
We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.
Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.
In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.
Or flip through piles of used record bins.
Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth the wait.
If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:
And then take you on a journey from this:
Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.
Take the mystery out of the thing.
Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.
But it’s not entirely a good thing either.
Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.
And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield, Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.
In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:
But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.
I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.
“The spoken introduction [i.e., to “Johnny Reggae”] specifically recalls the Shangri-Las’ spoken introduction on their 1964-65 hit, “Leader of the Pack,” which reached number eleven on the UK chart in January 1965. Here the question is ‘Is she really going out with him?’ followed by, ‘Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?”….Whereas the majority of American girl groups were black, the Shangri-Las were most likely Jewish and positioned as white (see Stratton, 2009, ch. 2). Their songs often expressed white middle-class teenage girls’ fantasies and angst. In contrast to this American melodramatic seriousness, “Johnny Reggae” sung in a London working class accent, reads humorously as English working class bathos.”
(Source: When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Faultlines, 1945–2010 Jon Stratton, 2014)
“We can now begin to appreciate the full irony of this Jewish group’s name, invoking utopian suburbia yet singing songs of family destruction.”
(Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, 2009)
Just so we have this straight: Stratton first definitively calls the Shangri-Las a Jewish group. Then, for the record, he goes on to build a serious argument around their Jewishness, or at least the thematic Jewishness of their songs, which were “mostly” written by Shadow Morton, who Stratton acknowledges is not Jewish.
Then, in a later book, he calls upon his own “research” as the foundation of a comparison/contrast wherein the Shangs are expressing “white middle-class teeenage girls’ fantasies and angst.”
That’s after he’s mentioned, in this later book, that they were “likely” Jewish (which, for the record, means he doesn’t know) but “positioned white” (which doesn’t mean anything to his “Jewish Blackface” argument, unless, of course, they are in fact demonstrably Jewish, in which case it might merely be banal).
Hoo-boy. Here we go again.
First, let me just state that I could care less whether any or all of the Shangri-Las were/are Jewish. But I’d never build an academic argument on the basis that they were and then admit that I didn’t know whether they were or not.
I mean, if I couldn’t find out for certain (and since it took me twenty years to determine whether Mary Weiss was indeed the lead singer, a journey I wrote about at length in the initial post for this blog, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if I remained in eternal ignorance on this other question in which I’m not terribly interested), then I would let it go.
Or just say I couldn’t find out…which might be an interesting story in itself.
I would be especially inclined to let it go if I was publishing “academic” books and therefore presumably had the resources to do a bit of checking beyond what’s available (or not) on the internet.
Mind you, I’ve long since got past the point where I expect that sort of thing from actual academics. I’m just saying that’s what I would do.
But of course, what I really always find fascinating is just how much confusion proliferates around the Shangri-Las specifically, even years after Mary Weiss finally came out of the shadows and gave a bunch of interviews that clarified just about everything except their ethnicity.
For instance, one of the other arguments Stratton makes is that “Past, Present and Future” is about rape, with the implication that this gives it a special hidden power (or words to that effect…it’s all wrapped up in dystopian angst suffered by an oppressed people trying to reach the American dream and finding only a nightmare, but then you knew that).
Just in case you didn’t happen to listen to the interview Weiss did with Suzi Quatro in 2007 (before either of Stratton’s books were published), she specifically said (as she had repeatedly done elsewhere) that such theories were news to her and (as she has done elsewhere) found them a touch ridiculous.
But what does she know?
Taken to that extent and no further, Stratton’s comments are only the usual bilge. That is, they wouldn’t be terribly illuminating even if the Shangri-Las (all famous attendees of a Catholic grammar school and a public high school) really were Jewish (which is, of course, still possible). And they hardly do more damage than dozens of other trite or false statements made over five decades and counting.
But, in this case, the fundamental fakery runs deeper than that.
For being “positioned white”–meaning positioned to take full advantage of their skin color by hiding their Jewishness and bleaching the sound and/or lyric themes of the “mostly black” girl groups–the Shangri-Las certainly had an interesting history.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, James Brown hired them for his revue on the assumption they were black. As I’ve mentioned several times before, Weiss had a Houston cop draw a gun on her before one of those shows when she insisted on using a “colored” bathroom (she used it anyway).
As I may not have mentioned before, they were also this:
And, as I almost certainly have not mentioned before, they were virtually the last white group of the rock and roll era to cross over in any meaningful way to the R&B charts, and, so far as I can tell, the only group to do so who emerged after the British Invasion essentially re-divided the Pop and R&B charts along specifically racial lines that soon resembled 1954 (though the existence of Motown effectively disguised just how thorough the Pop bleaching otherwise was–one of several reasons that calling Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the five or six most important men in the history of rock and roll is probably underselling him…with the difference between the way the Supremes, or even the Marvelettes, were managed versus the way the Shangri-Las were managed probably being reason enough all on its own).
In other words, their songs did not appeal merely, or even mainly, to white middle-class teenage female fantasies.
To believe that, we’d have to dismiss some history.
Like the fact that on October 10, 1964, in a year when Billboard was not publishing an R&B chart because, absent the unforeseen arrival of the Beatles, the Pop and R&B charts had become so blurred as to make keeping a separate chart more trouble than it was worth, there were exactly three records by white artists in Cash Box‘s R&B Top Fifty.
The Kingsmen’s “Death of an Angel” was sitting at #29 (only God knows why).
The other two songs were “Leader of the Pack” (which had just entered the chart at #38, a slot above Aretha Franklin’s latest) and “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” which was at #9, sandwiched between Jerry Butler and James Brown just above and Dionne Warwick and Sam Cooke just below.
Not that he’d have thought there was anything wrong with doing so, but I guess James could have been forgiven for assuming they weren’t merely pandering to white middle-class teenage girls..or otherwise “positioned as white.”
You know, when he saw their name next to his on the only chart that was keeping up with what Black America was listening to in 1964.
Just remember folks. The same sort of minds that come up with these little gems cover politics, write history and work in “science” departments.
So remember to trust no one just because they say so.
The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees have been announced:
Congratulations to Nirvana, KISS, Hall and Oates, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt.
I’ve been stumping for Ronstadt on this blog for pretty much the entire twenty-two months of its existence (and in the occasional letter-writing campaign for many a long year before that) so I’m only sorry that it took the announcement of a debilitating disease for the Hall to do the right thing by her.
Hall and Oates were the only others I voted for myself on the fan ballots that were available at Rolling Stone and Future Rock Hall, but there were strong cases for all the others and part of what’s fun (and very rock and roll) about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that it covers a lot of ground and makes for a lot of good arguments.
A lot of folks are naming Cat Stevens as the margin call this time around, and some are even insisting that the Hall must be cooking the books to keep including so many crit-fave singer-songwriters year after year (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman have gone in previously).
Sorry, but my guess is that if the Hall’s voting gurus do fix the process–and I’ve never seen anyone produce any real evidence that this is the case–it’s more likely to throw a bone to truly vocal fan bases like the KISS army.
And I don’t find it difficult to believe that there is a bloc of voters who consistently rally around a genre of performers they happen to like and think are worthy. (And I’ll add, once again, that with Cat Stevens now stacked up with all the others on one side, their combined weight still doesn’t tip the scale against Jackie DeShannon all by herself on the other. I’ll be saying the same thing after John Prine and Warren Zevon are doubtless added in the near future.)
In any case, my own margin call is Peter Gabriel (already voted in as a member of Genesis). Excepting truly no-brainer exceptions like the solo Michael Jackson, I don’t think anyone should be inducted twice while so many of the deserving haven’t been inducted once. And, if there are going to be two-time inductees, then Smokey Robinson (in as a performer, but should be in as a non-performer as well), Jerry Butler (in as a member of the Impressions, with whom he made only one record, but not in as a solo performer, though he was/is a far greater and far more influential artist than Gabriel or many others already inducted) and Carole King (ditto), would all be considerably more worthy than Peter Gabriel.
But the real disappointment for me (though not a surprise) was in Link Wray not getting in.
It is passing strange that Wray and Johnny Burnette’s Rock N’ Roll trio, the two acts who rest at the very heart of the Hard Rock genre which brings out the loudest complaints year-after-year from fans who feel it is “under-represented”–complaints that will likely only shift emphasis (rather than subside) now that the Rush and KISS armies have been appeased–receive so little public support from either the artists who later made gazillions off their basic ideas, or the fans who stump for those artists.
I like the idea that bands like Rush and KISS have passionate fan bases who have kept pressure on the Hall all these years. And I like the idea that they were rewarded for their faith….better than I like the bands in question as it happens (even though I like the bands just fine and love a few of their records).
But we shouldn’t forget where all that Sturm und Drang really came from (you might need to double click this one):
And I’ll take it as a hopeful sign that Mr. Page does have a vote!
(NOTE: Just FYI: If I had a “real” ballot, I would have cast one of my votes for Nirvana. I figure the fan’s ballot, in which the total fan vote gets counted as one, is for the fan in me, not the responsible citizen.)
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:
“Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.”
(The always prone to understatement, but undeniably trenchant, Nik Cohn’s opening paragraph to the chapter titled “Rue Morgue, 1960″ in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1970)
When Cohn wrote these words he was basically summing up what a lot of third-rate romancers–mostly male, mostly white, mostly collegiate whether or not they had yet been to college (or would ever go)–had been saying and writing since, well, 1960.
1960 sucked and blew. Well, really that whole 1958 (the fall!) to 1963 (waiting for the Beatles to save us all!) period had sucked and blown.
That was the worst, the nadir (good collegiate word), the pits (as the actual greasers might have put it).
1960 was spiritual death. The bottom that had to be reached some time before the resurrection (Beatlemania!…or more accurately, the highly inventive new-chord-progressions-and-the-truth music and supremely witty collective style of the Beatles demonstrated in their respective persons, since mania was a highly unstable state, particularly redolent of suspicion as it was likely to be the specific province of screaming girls, who collegians and greasers both knew could give you cooties) could properly occur.
So the story goes. Give Cohn credit. He nailed the entire ethos in a few clipped lines.
Like I said. Trenchant.
That’s what you call controlling the narrative.
Well, you know I like to put these little narratives under a microscope once in a while, so I can’t really say if it was entirely a coincidence that–having just completed a re-read of Cohn’s classic account of rock’s early years–I took the occasion of my weekend drive (itself, the occasion for laying a Mother’s Day rose on a headstone) to pull out the mighty Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse: 31 R&B Classics That Rocked the Jukebox In 1960 for company.
Let me just say that if 1960 was the bottom of the pop barrel (as opposed to the political barrel, which really was dire in many respects) I wish we could go back there.
Bobby Bland, Jerry Butler, James Brown, Etta James, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, one-offs the likes of “Stay,” or “Something’s On Your Mind,” or “Let the Little Girl Dance,” or “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (wait til the spell checker get’s hold of that one!).
And all of that’s before you get to the real kicker, which involves Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (the only cut here that wasn’t an R&B hit, and virtually the only one that didn’t cross over to the Pop charts) running straight into the Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night,” followed by a teen-ager named Jimmy Charles giving a perfect imitation of the era’s white teen idols on “A Million to One” and a young woman who called herself Sugar Pie DeSanto (whose then producer/hustler husband went on to become a bank robber after they divorced–baby that was rock and roll) doing a straight cop, arrangement wise, on the Everly Brothers (who, of course, were still crossing over regularly to the R&B charts, though these sort of collections never acknowledge such things–not even when they are done by the Bear Family. The Nik Cohn’s of the world have had their effect).
1960, incidentally, was the year Cash Box, the other major trade magazine that competed with Billboard, suspended it’s R&B Chart for a time because the overlap between R&B and Pop, barely noticeable before rock and roll, was by then so great there seemed little point in keeping them separated. (Billboard would follow with a similar experiment in late 1963–that experiment lasted a bit longer than Cash Box‘s but was nonetheless ended a little over a year later once the Beatles and the British Invasion had safely re-segregated the charts and more or less ended the post-racial dream which had caused so much panic sweat to rise from the thin, tender skin of Nik Cohn and the Future of Rock Criticism in the dread days of 1960, when black people and girls and, well, black girl people, were starting to litter up the pop charts and the hallways of the Brill Building like nobody’s business.)
Oh well. I guess one man’s “worst year that pop has been through” is another man’s extremely interesting times.
But the next time you hear that America needed the Beatles because of the Kennedy assassination or some such rigmarole (or better yet, to “rediscover” the black music which the British Invasion in fact shoved back to the sideline), just remember the carefully modulated warning later rendered by Pete Townshend, that most British of all prophets, when he said something to the effect of not getting fooled again.