HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 8: “Wake Up Everybody”)

“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.

At all.

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 nowTODAY), 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…

Everybody…

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.

“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

 

THE ICEMAN COMETH AND THE WORLD AWAKENS (Jerry Butler, Vocalist of the Month–June, 2013)

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.)

Fourth act?

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: