SEGUE OF THE DAY (5/18/13–Lester Flatt and Ronnie Isley)

About this time a year ago, I found out I was going to have to replace my roof and my hardwood floors by the end of the year in order to keep my house insurable. These things got done, at the expense of reordering my life for months on end. And I’m just now returning to something like “normal” status, meaning, among other things, that my record player is fully operational again.

So here in the last week or two I’ve been pulling vinyl like mad, acquainting and re-acquainting myself as it were.

And sometime Saturday in the very early a.m., I was sure I had found the “new” acquaintance of the week/month/year when I discovered Flatt–on an old double-LP titled Bean Blossom (a live recording from Indiana’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in 1973 which I’ve had for years but have rarely played and never really paid strict attention to before)–turning “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” aka “The Theme From the Beverly Hillbillies” into a laconic, world-weary, working man’s blues.

Flatt’s studio version was already far dryer and a good deal more cautionary than the chipper version that resides in the national subconcious via endless re-runs, but here, he made lines like “poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,” sound like they were being sung from the bottom of a mine.

So that had to be it, right? The new thing most likely to expand my consciousness here in the latter stages of my recovery phase?

Really, I should know better.

No matter how tired I get, I should never forget that rock and roll is bottomless.

Not twenty-four hours later, I’m in my car listening to the final album in a stark-raving incredible five album set from the Isley Brothers which, in amongst the hardcore funk-rock and straight soul, features lots and lots of covers of White America’s AM Gold playlist circa the early seventies, nearly every one of which they transformed.

Seriously: “Ohio” to “Summer Breeze” to “Listen to the Music” to “Love the One You’re With” to “Fire and Rain.” Good records, great records, trash records. It would be easy to think it was just catch-as-catch-can, trying to keep up with the era’s insane recording schedules–easy except Ronnie Isley kept finding ways to make everything personal.

“Just yesterday morning,” he sings “they let me know you were gone.” And suddenly it hurts. There’s no distance, no comfort, no displacement, no opacity, no self-pity, just real fear and real transcendence. As if somebody or something is really and truly gone.

Same with “four dead in O-hi-o.” Same with “There’s a rose in the fisted glove.”

And so on and so forth.

But even with all that coming at me during my drive times this week, I wasn’t any way prepared for Ronnie to take on Jonathan Edwards’ consummately fey (and consummately catchy) “Sunshine,” which, I confess, I never knew meant anything at all after hearing Edwards sing it a few hundred times on the oldies’ stations of yesteryear (most often with me shouting right along, incidentally).

Here, it starts out sounding like a man who is standing next to Lester Flatt in that imaginary mine, shouting up–“Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancing”–and then follows along as he proceeds to lift himself up inch-by-inch until he can just about see the light.

But don’t take my word for it…go have a listen–as “He’s got cards he ain’t showing,” takes on new meaning in the mouth of a black man negotiating the fall-out of post Civil Rights America as the New Jim Crow began to meet the Old Jim Crow and he helps you ponder the paths not taken–bear in mind Ronnie’s own maxim that rock and roll was the only music that let everything in:

The Isley Brothers “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” (Studio recording)

 

THE QUIET MAN (Bobby Smith R.I.P.)

“The singer is the star: my job is to create the music.”

Thom Bell (Spinners’ producer and the greatest record man of the 1970s. Also possibly the wisest.)

One of the principal themes of this blog has been the promotion of the idea–or, if you will, the obvious but too often neglected truth–that rock and roll was principally a singer’s music. The rock division of the crit-illuminati who sprang up in the late sixties and whose members have dominated the conversation ever since has generally been willing to promote writers, producers, instrumentalists and even session players at the expense of singers (unless, of course, the singers can qualify on one of the other counts, in which case they become true “creators” and therefore, cool again).

Part of this is understandable. In the collaborative, often “assembly line” nature of music making, singers have often been easily (if lazily) relegated to the similarly maligned and misunderstood role of actors in the movie business. They’re out front. They’re obvious. They’re most likely to be noticed and/or adored by the uncritical masses. And, hey, aren’t they really just breathing in time or something?

We all know the drill..

You sound a lot hipper knowing who James Jamerson or Hal Blaine were than knowing who, say, Bobby Smith was.

Now, there’s nobody walking the earth, today or ever, who appreciates the other kinds of genius that found their voices in rock and roll–James Jamerson and Hal Blaine very specifically included–than yours truly.

But without the singers none of us would have ever had the chance to celebrate the rest.

Singers sell the records. Singers set the styles.

And singers move the mountains.

I doubt any singer got less credit for moving more mountains than Bobby Smith, the principal lead of an aggregation variously called The Detroit Spinners, The Spinners and just….Spinners, for more than five decades.

Even within his own group he was often seen as taking second place to the more heavily publicized Philippe Wynne (a co-equal genius who nonetheless often received credit for Smith’s vocals even in the liner notes of the group’s actual albums) and Jonathan Edwards (a powerhouse of the group’s last really popular period).

The others were great singers and dynamic showmen. But it was Smith who took the majority of leads on the group’s great hits, Smith who produced more of their defining moments than anyone else and Smith who held the center in the seventies, when Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade when the human voice still trumped the machines and that distinction actually meant something.

Time came for Bobby Smith on March 16. Well, for his body anyway.

It will never come for this:

Spinners “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” (Television performance)