I pay tribute to Berry Gordy and Motown, who, believe it or not, may have been underestimated, over at Rick’s place.
If you need something to get you in the mood…
I pay tribute to Berry Gordy and Motown, who, believe it or not, may have been underestimated, over at Rick’s place.
If you need something to get you in the mood…
“While You’re Out Looking for Sugar”
The Honey Cone (1969)
Billboard Pop: #62
Billboard R&B: #26
Recommended source: Greatest Hits
I came across an item on Facebook today which claimed it’s Edna Wright’s 75th birthday. I wasn’t able to confirm the date anywhere else (though she is listed as being born in 1944) but I’ll take any real or imagined occasion to celebrate her and her great group the Honey Cone’s not-so-little and all-too-forgotten place in the history of Rock and Roll America.
When the titanic writing/producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland split with Motown in 1968, they set out looking for artists to fill the rosters at their new labels Hot Wax and Invictus. The first act they signed was a trio of girl group veterans consisting of Wright (Darlene Love’s sister–the vocal and visual similarities were striking), Carolyn Willis and Shelly Clark.
The group’s history soon became an old, familiar one. Like the Chantels, Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las (among others) before them, they were the soul and success of their new label, made fabulous records, had a modest but indelible run of hits and were abandoned to their fate when the record company went out of business. Like those other groups, their identity remained largely obscure, except when they opened their mouths to sing. For the Honey Cone, that musical identity consisted of a nudge forward in what their label mate Laura Lee would soon term “Women’s Love Rights.”
Their biggest hit, “Want Ads,” was, even more than Lee’s hit, the culmination of the process–a new style of assertiveness that married the old girl talk timbres (vulnerable, yearning) to soul and blues themes that had mostly been left to males. The ethos could be summed up in a simple phrase: You better watch yourself!
But the road to “Want Ads” and similarly themed records like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” (out of Miami, where she, too, would be the foundation stone for yet another process of somebody else making a lot more money than she did), began with the Honey Cone’s first Hot Wax release, “While You’re Out Looking for Sugar” (1969) a fine soul side that did just well enough on the charts to confirm H-D-H’s faith in bigger and better things to come.
It was a bold leap. There were scant role models at the time for the kind of sly but forceful pushback Edna and her group were insisting upon. No more pleading, no more begging, no more daydreaming and no more prizing the church over the street.
Once they got going, the new woman was here to stay, and not just on the Pop and Soul charts. Like all the great girl groups before them, including those H-D-H had guided at Motown (even the mighty Supremes), they were often dismissed as puppets.
Like all the great girl groups before them, it was never that simple. Put it this way: Except for “Want Ads,” Honey Cone’s entire catalog could qualify as its own subcategory of Diamonds in the Shade. There was a reason why, when Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland went looking for the foundation of their own vision, they signed Edna Wright first.
The Definitive Collection
Diana Ross & the Supremes (2008)
Let’s start with this: The Supremes, in their various incarnations, have thirty-one comps listed on Wikipedia. I doubt that’s all of them, but it’s enough to suggest there is probably no such thing as a “definitive” Supremes collection. I have four, including the four-disc CD box, which stretches from the very beginning (when it wasn’t clear whether Diana Ross or Flo Ballard would be the lead singer) to the very end (by which time Mary Wilson had, for years, been the only remaining original Supreme and Ballard was in the boneyard). It sustains.
But for getting to the essence, it’s hard to beat this one–and the essence is as essential as anything in the rock and roll era.
In the 173 weeks preceding the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” reaching #1, (Oct. 3, 1961 to Feb 1, 1964) the top of the American pop charts looked like this:**
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 53
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 4
In the same length of time after (Feb. 1, 1964 to June 3, 1967):
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 32
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 26
Weeks the Supremes spent at #1: 19
Short summary: In the middle of what is supposed to have been Rock and Roll America’s most expansive period, absent Motown (meaning absent Berry Gordy, Jr.), Black America’s time at the top of the Pop Chart would have reverted to the pre-Elvis standard.
Without the Supremes, even Motown would have made little difference in this respect (something Berry Gordy understood better than anyone).
This was after a period–supposedly rock’s most limited and fallow–when Black America had sustained enough chart action over the entirety of the early Rock ‘n’ Roll era for both Cashbox and Billboard to experiment with ending the R&B (or “race”) chart–an experiment a year’s worth of the British Invasion ended for good. So much “for good” that recent years when White America dominated the Hip Hop chart–including one year (2013) where white acts occupied the top spot forty-four out of fifty-two weeks–have not revived the concept.
“Race” dies hard.
If the Supremes had not existed–had not been what and who they were–the shape of the dream that is receding behind us, the restoration of which will be the bedrock of any future revival of anything worth either living or dying for, would be a great deal smaller and meaner.
I listen to them hard and often. Always have. Always will.
Lately, when I listen, I listen to this–because I hear the perfect shape of something America responded to like no other version of ourselves that existed in their time. Hit play:
“Where Did Our Love Go”–By the time they broke out, in the summer of ’64, it was Diana Ross’s show. But the other key elements were already in place. The neighborhood harmonies, the pounding rhythm, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s gift for tying memorable melodies to stringent-but-far-from-simple lyrics that turn on the subtleties of Ross’s timbre: “I’ve got this burnin, burnin, yearnin’ feeling inside me” had never been followed quite so smoothly and irresistibly by anything as turned-on-its-head as “Ooooohhhh, deep inside me….and it hurts so bad.”
“Baby Love”–In true Motown style, the hit formula was copied closely on the subsequent release. Unlike all the other hit formulas, this went straight to #1 again. (Nice story, which I’ll paraphrase: Years ago, I heard all three members of HDH interviewed on public radio. One of them told a story about hanging out on the porch at Motown’s Hitsville after a long, not especially fruitful day of songwriting. He happened to overhear Gordy telling someone that, after the years-in-coming success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” he was going to put all the company’s promotional muscle behind the Supremes because they were the ticket to the white mainstream he had been seeking. Back inside, the eavesdropper went to the room where he had been working with the others, locked the door, hooked a chair under the knob, told his partners what he had heard, and said “We’re not leaving here until we write three number one hits for the Supremes.” “Baby Love” was the first.
“Come See About Me”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the second. And #1 again. However great it was in conception, it grew by leaps and bounds when Ross got hold of it. There’s no question in your mind that he’ll come see about her. Who wouldn’t! Hers is the only mind filled with doubt.
“Stop! In the Name of Love”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the third. And #1 again. Their signature stage song–Rock and Roll America produced nothing more iconic than their hand-motion choreography for this one and Rosanna Arquette fit a lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and for the first time James Jamerson’s bass emerged from the mix so powerfully that it became its own voice, counterpointing Ross’s desperate lead with a sound that seems to lead her down a path where hope and fear are forks in a road with no signs. To listen close is to be forever lost on that road….where you can never know if the path taken is right or wrong, no matter how many times it put a smile on your face when you were just singing along with the radio.
“Back in My Arms Again”–And, just like that, they were personalities. “And Flo, she don’t know, ’cause the boy she loves is a Romeo!”…And #1 again.
“Nothing but Heartaches”–A brilliant record, featuring some of the most haunting and complex harmonies found on any Motown record, plus the usual sterling qualities all the way around….and a flop! After five straight #1’s, this only got to #11. Not sure oldies radio ever made a distinction–but the Corporation noticed.
“I Hear a Symphony”–And went back to basics. The beat’s BIG again (especially that bass!), the harmonic lines cleaned up and deepened, the booting sax from ’64 restored to the bridge. Plus a lyric that’s a straightforward Ode to Joy. Back to #1!
“My World Is Empty Without You”–The lyric complexity returns. Is she pleading for forgiveness, extending it, or admitting she doesn’t care? The track retains the back-to-basics feel. The chart split the difference. It peaked at #5.
“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”–A fair bid for the sexiest vocal ever recorded. I don’t think it’s her heart that’s itching. Deeper than you might think, even so. The charts noticed (else fatigue was setting in)–this, as great and joyous as anything, settled for #9.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”–No way to stop this one, even if it plays like a sequel to “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart”–straight-up itching traded for Mama’s advice. By itself, that might have thrown the radio audience, but it was #1 by the time the bass intro reached the third note.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”–A shock. Still. Decades of radio play could never wear it smooth. The track itself was so compelling that Kim Wilde’s note-for-note copy went #1 two decades later…and was promptly forgotten. What neither Wilde nor anyone else could match was Ross’s combination of intimacy and distance–as if she’s finally grown terrified of a version of herself it would cost her life to reject. And across those same decades, seven thousand white boy critics echoed each other with some version of “Why doesn’t this weak women just leave the bastard?” Gee, all that liberation theology, all those leftover groupies, and they still never heard about the thing called Sex. #1 of course.
“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”–“Into your arms I fell, so unaware, of the loneliness that was waiting there.” It’s what you might call a theme. #1 again.
“The Happening”–Okay, here’s why there will never be a perfect Supremes comp. It’s another #1 (and therefore can’t be left off) and a good enough record that I could imagine it gracing a run of hits by someone else and not interrupting the flow. But this is the Supremes. And it’s only 1967. The quality doesn’t matter. It will just never fit. (Click the link, though. It’s the Sullivan appearance where Ed forgot the name and just introduced them as….”the girls!” Plus, they could dance. In case anyone forgot.)
“Reflections”–The themes reach culmination–loneliness, despair, the Morse Code of heartache, reflection. My pick for their greatest record, and Motown’s. It’s given extra weight by being so close to Flo Ballard’s last gasp (she would last only another six weeks before being fired). Somehow, this most perfect intimation of its time and place only reached #2. And that after even “The Happening” had gone to the top. One of life’s little mysteries. It’ll be worth every step of the hard road that ends with both feet inside the pearly gates to have that one explained.
“Love Child”–With Ballard gone, Mary Wilson was frozen out of the studio and backing vocals were turned over to the thoroughly professional Andantes. Three fantastic singles followed “Reflections” (to diminishing chart returns–with Ballard gone, they fell from the Top Ten like a stone). I feel their loss. But hearing “Reflections”bleed into this one elevates both. Which in the abstract, I wouldn’t believe was possible. And back to #1.
“I’m Livin’ in Shame”–A “Love Child” sequel and nearly as good. Standing on it’s own, it can slide by you and you can hear why it only reached the Top Ten. But placed here–and knowing the end is near–it gains weight, as the kitchen-sink details that lay hidden between the grooves of its predecessor are filled in and turned into pure loss. “She never got out of the house, never even boarded a train.” It’s all in the voice–Ross’s sly ability to shift between Ghetto Child and Worldly Sophisticate Looking Over Her Shoulder without losing the plot–and no record caught Black America’s then emerging, still unresolved, cultural dilemma better.
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with The Temptations)–Pure product. And as irresistible as the Art that preceded it.
“Someday We’ll Be Together”–Their last release with Diana Ross and the last #1 single of the 1960s.
Of course it was.
Now excuse me while I hit replay.
**NOTE: I chose the period of 173 weeks based on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” marking a new era for Black America in terms of reclaiming the charts….The other non-Motown acts who reached number one between the arrival of the Beatles and the week “Respect” topped the chart were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups and Percy Sledge. I wrote about the significance of Percy’s record here.
“Indiana Wants Me”
Artist: R. Dean Taylor
Writer: R. Dean Taylor
When the crit-illuminati mock, is it because they don’t understand….or because they do?
From March 21, 2006:
Where have all the tear-jerking story songs gone? Unless “It’s hard out here for a pimp” qualifies, I think the genre’s mostly dead. Good riddance. I’m not sure where they began – you could trace them back to 50s tunes about drag races and dead girlfriends, or back to blues / jazz tunes with simple story lines like “Frankie and Johnny” [Cliff Notes versions: she shot him, inasmuch as he had done, and was doing, and presumably would continue to do, her wrong.] But the late 60s and early 70s had a spate of them, and for some reason “Indiana Wants Me” had a special place in our junior-high hearts – it ended with sirens and a policeman calling “This is the police. You are surrounded. Give yourself up. ” Poor guy! And what had he done wrong, really? Well, he killed a guy – but the lug had it coming, since “No one had the right to say the things he said.” What? That pi was actually a finite number? White shoes could be worn in March? “Catsup” was the preferred spelling, not “Ketchup”? Whatever it was, shooting seemed a rather drastic response. Then again, I never understood why Big Bad John got into a fight over a Caging Queen. Lyrics were a boundless source of mystery.
Come to think of it, “Indiana Wants Me” probably doesn’t take place in Indiana at all, since the singer is a fugitive. Wonder why he chose that state. “Minnesota Wants Me” sounds like a tourist promotion; “Iowa wants me” sounds like you’re being invited to an elderly aunt’s house for tea. “North Dakota wants me” is rather obvious, given the population decline. “Indiana” has that flat Charlie-Starkweather Midwestern vibe, I guess. [Yes, yes, I know, he was a Nebraskan. And if ever there is a word that describes the feeling of the wind in the Midwest in late December, it’s that: Nebraskan Starkweather. On the other hand, put a Roman numeral after it, and it sounds all WASPy and country-clubbed: Nebraskan Starkweather III]
(James Lileks, Blog Post from March 21, 2006)
Well, that’s one way of putting it.
Here’s another way.
Story songs have all but disappeared because “story” needs communal norms (what used to be called Civilization) to communicate. Go to your local bookstore (if you have one–they needed Civilization too), pick up any literary magazine (yes, they still have them) and read any two paragraphs of any entry published within. I can’t say what all you might find. What you won’t find is anything resembling a story.
“Indiana Wants Me” is one of the great story songs–great in part because of its refusal to give any of those unnecessary details Lileks pretends to miss. It assumes you can fill in the blanks.
A man kills another man because that man insulted his wife. We know they’re married because no mere hanger-on would kill any man for insulting any woman.
The man knows what the consequences of his decision are.
It means he’ll die in a standoff with the police.
That’s the story.
Bruce Springsteen (following fellow Great Artists like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard) has spent his entire career chasing that story–and not just the whole story, but that perfect phrase about a man who needed dying.
And, just like all the others, including those who were dust before “Indiana Wants Me” existed, he’ll die trying to catch up, trying to give it a new dimension.
Like all the others, he’ll fail.
The world has moved on.
Stories are no more. No common assumptions (about who “needs” dying, or anything else), no stories.
It’s possible R. Dean Taylor–a white Motown staffer (responsible for, among others “Love Child” for the Supremes and “All I Need” for the Temptations) who wrote “Indiana Wants Me” as a response to seeing Bonnie and Clyde and eventually recorded its superb country lyric as a self-produced Tommy James soundalike for Motown’s Rare Earth subsidiary and watched it become that label’s biggest international hit–didn’t know his story songs were a mere generation from going out of style.
It’s also possible he did.
1970 was almost the exact turning point from a world where “if a man ever needed dying he did, no one had the right to say what he said….about you” (that pause is everything, until that pause and the two words that follow, the killer and the man he leaves dead might be any sort, after that pause, and those two words, they are fixed in a moral universe with unalterable rules) went from a statement understood by all (even those who mocked or disagreed or professed ignorance of honor codes or horror at their application) to a world where such statements, and the sentiments behind them, are incomprehensible.
Lileks is a self-styled “conservative.” Re-reading his piece last week, I was reminded of the flurry of bloggers who gained traction in the wake of Donald Trump’s candidacy and soon became labeled “Alt-Right.”
They have a lot of fun mocking the Lileks-style mockers and one point they’ve made ad nauseum (a point in keeping with my own early-and-often categorization of Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate and Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve): “Conservatives” have conserved nothing.
The difference between the Alt-Righters and me, regarding the collapse, over the last half-century, of the millennia-old traditions that under-gird Liberal Democracy–and, with it, all the traditions that forbade us from doing whatever we liked, from eating the wrong foods to mowing down rooms full of school kids, “just because”–is two-fold.
One is, they think Liberal Democracy has failed for mechanical reasons–that nature has reasserted itself over men’s better angels, rather than men making unwise choices of conscience. Like Reactionaries of all stripes, Left and Right, they believe barbarism, and its attendant cycle of chaos and tyranny, are inevitable and we best get on with the supreme duty of the cycle’s proper management.
Two is: They’re happy about it–about a world where everything is called into question.
Like, for instance…why Indiana?
Because it sings, moron. Your version of “conservativism” is deader than the traditions of story, song and Civilization your devotion to nihilism was designed to destroy.
Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Recommended source: Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection
Sly and the Family Stone worked at such a white hot pace in their 1967-72 heyday that, like the 65-67 version of the Byrds and the 75-79 version of Fleetwood Mac, they left an album or two worth of fine material in the vault and still laid a claim on being the best band of their time.
The Family’s extras emerged from the shadows in 2007, when their first seven albums were remastered and released as a box set.
I’ve been giving the albums a close listen for the first time this week (Stand and There’s a Riot Goin’ On having been longtime favorites–mine and everybody’s) and what struck me about the nature of the extras is that, where the Byrds and Fleetwood Mac were prone to leaving off their oddball stuff, Sly and company were more likely to leave off their straight stuff.
Hence, “Soul Clappin'” (sometimes, for no evident reason, listed as “Soul Clappin’ II”), which is “Dance to the Music” slightly straightened out….and just about as pleasurable. “Dance to the Music,” one of the most revolutionary records ever, is worth its own essay. But “Soul Clappin'” carries its own weight. It suggests that if Sylvester Stone had been so inclined, he could have included “the hippies and the squares”–instead of telling all the squares to go home–and gone toe-to-toe with Stax and Motown on their own turf….instead of pulling them onto his.
Genius is like that, sometimes.
Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):
“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**
It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of Tom Petty or Prince.
And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.
But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.
The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.
But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.
Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.
That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.
For a while anyway.
Long enough to become iconic.
Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.
That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.
The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.
I’d love to hear it.
I won’t hold my breath.
**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)
Well, I’ve finally assembled the last few volumes of the Bear Family’s Street Corner Symphonies, the company’s comprehensive overview of the vocal group music made by blacks and urban immigrants between 1938 and 1963 so I’m spending Christmas Eve listening to the 1960 volume and, all of a sudden, Smokey Robinson enters the scene, not as America’s Greatest Living Poet, but as just one more street kid trying to make it with his group (a status confirmed by Bill Dahl’s characteristically comprehensive notes).
The streets the Poet was trying to make it from were in Detroit, which, from 1938 to 1959, were barely represented in the history of what would come to be called Doo Wop (a nebulous concept which the Bear Family has extended beyond its insult-embraced-by-the-pure-of-heart-as-badge-of-honor meaning, though not so far as to include, say, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” which, after hearing this set’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You,” by the Flamingos–as doo wop as doo wop got–I realize they easily could have).
After 1960, of course–more or less beginning with the Poet’s own “Shop Around”–Detroit would become so significant to the development of vocal group dynamics, it would birth its own category, in time to be called simply “Motown.”
When “Whos’ Lovin’ You”–first released as the B-side of “Shop Around”–shows up here, following a mini-set of cutting edge tracks from the Shirelles, Drifters, Coasters, it makes everything else sound reactionary. It’s as if the most exciting sounds of 1960 were already running backwards to safety and only the Poet could see around the corner.
Well, that’s why he was the Poet and why he could never have stayed just another kid trying to make it. And, of course, most of us already knew that. But it never slapped me up side the head and made me laugh quite like it did on Christmas Eve of the year Donald Trump was elected President of the current nation, while I was just sitting quietly with my book and my diet Root Beer, listening to some doo wop from the year John Kennedy was elected President of the imaginary nation Trump has promised to restore.
Time’s funny that way.
There are delusional souls, Berry Gordy among them, who believe Michael Jackson’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” is superior to Smokey’s (“He was kickin’ Smokey’s ass!” Gordy once said, whilst recalling the first time he heard Michael sing it).
Michael Jackson’s version is fine. It’s about the best version you will ever hear from a ten-year-old. Good on Michael.
On no day of his tortured life was he Smokey Robinson.
Merry Christmas ya’ll.
“Legend” hardly cuts it.
Chips Moman was born in Georgia (LaGrange) a few years before Otis Redding (Dawson) and a couple of years after Elvis Presley was born in Mississippi (Tupelo).
Like them, and many, many others, he made his way to Memphis (his family moved there when he was a teenager, or he hitchhiked at seventeen….like a lot of Memphis stories, it varies).
And after that?
Well he hooked up with Johnny Burnette’s road band, then Gene Vinent’s. Then (like Johnny, like Elvis) he made his way to California. After a while, like Elvis and oh so many others who didn’t die (like Johnny), he came home.
Maybe it was something in the water. In those days, a lot sure did happen in Memphis.
But, of course, it’s wasn’t really the water. The water’s still there. But there ain’t much happening these days.
In Memphis, as elsewhere, It was always the people. And of all the people who made things happen in Memphis it was damned few who made as much happen as Chips Moman.
Go ahead and starting counting on your fingers.
Don’t worry if you only have one hand. You won’t need the second one.
Because here’s what happened when Chips Moman came back to Memphis:
He hooked up with a man named Jim Stewart, who was in the process of founding a record label (Satellite) that would eventually be called Stax. It was Moman who found the grocery store that became Stax’s legendary studio; Moman who pushed the label towards R&B; Moman who produced the label’s first three hits, which were only this…
Promising as all that was, there wasn’t much chance of the relationship lasting. Chips Moman wasn’t really cut out to be a hired hand. Soon enough he had his own studio. Soon enough after that he had his first big hit, which was only this…
The royalties from that one allowed him to hire a secretary, who soon enough brought him a demo she had recorded, which he soon cut on her when he couldn’t lure a bigger name all the way to Memphis (in those days, big names came from Memphis, not to it, an equation Chips Moman would reverse for good). It only turned to be this…
By then, Moman had a flourishing studio and a budding reputation. Pretty soon people started calling him, wanting to record in his studio.
Big names even.
Pretty soon after that he had a bigger reputation.
What he didn’t really have, what he never really had, was much of a “label.” He tended to lease his studio’s recordings Which may be why Moman’s “studio” could produce 120 hits in a decade without being legendary, in the way of Stax or Motown, anywhere except inside the music business. Meaning he could write/record/produce or just auteurize records like these into being…
…and literally a hundred more.
You will notice there are no boundaries: pop, soul, country, garage rock, country-pop, soul-pop, country-soul, country-soul-pop-a-top (okay I made the last one up). Those are just a few of the terms thrown around in the various obits today, every one of which mentioned that Moman’s famous studio was called American and not one of which emphasized that it was freaking called “American.”
To go one better and get really specific, it was called “American Sound.”
As in, “You want the American sound, you come to my little hole-in-the-wall studio.”
You can think about the amount of chutzpah it took to call your studio that and you can maybe laugh and shake your head or maybe lift your nose in the air and say the nerve.
But you shouldn’t forget that it ain’t braggin’ if you back it up. A brag is hardly without risk. These days, the band America, is a punchline. They’re that even if you like their music. The nerve!
Chips Moman? American Sound Studio?
In the course of Moman backing up the biggest and truest brag in the history of the music business, or maybe just the history of the whole American idea, there were, inevitably, monster moments…
and I’ll just say that it was not entirely an accident that the greatest vocal sessions of the American century–mind-blowing even by Elvis’s unmatched standards–were recorded in a studio called American run by Chips Moman, or that, just as inevitably and non-accidentally, there were private treasures along the way…
And of course, later on, in a world that was rapidly forgetting both American Studios itself, and the rock and roll vision Chips Moman forged there, and had, almost alone, sustained through the turbulent sixties to such a degree that when Elvis (and oh so many others) were looking for a place to hang on against the rising tide and even fight back, it was all but guaranteed they would make their way to his studio, whether they had to walk across the street or, like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, fly half way around the world, he could still do this…
…for public consumption. And still provide those private treasures…
Not bad for a country boy getting back to the country, as they say.
But for all his specific genius as a songwriter, a producer, a businessman (always an underrated gift), Chips Moman was more than the sum of his monumental parts. There were things recorded in his little Memphis studio which had nothing to do with his specific talents. He didn’t write them or produce them or do anything at all for them….except create the physical and psychic space they needed to breathe.
Those records could be as great and iconic as this…
or even this…
But if I had to pick only one that summed up the ethos, one record to say goodbye on, it would be this one…
Other people could have written it (others did). Somebody else could have produced it (somebody did).
As with a few hundred other records, though, many famous, just as many obscure, only one man could have envisioned the space where so much American happiness and so American pain could fight it out on a daily basis and somehow manage to co-exist within a sound that excluded nothing and no one.
One man did.
That was America. If we ever manage to amount to anything again, the memory of the music made in that one man’s little studio, which never looked like more than this…
and is now reduced to no more than this…
…will play no small part.
So long brother. You did good. You did real good.
“This Is Your Life”
The Commodores (1975)
Billboard R&B: #13
Did not make the Pop Chart
Recommended source: Commodores Gold
“This Is Your Life” was the Commodores fifth single. After some fair-to-middling success as a (first rate) hard funk band, it was meant to launch them as a ballad act, featuring their rather odd-looking and odd-sounding crooner in residence, Lionel Richie.
It didn’t. Their previous release “Slippery When Wet” had been their most successful to date, topping the R&B chart and reaching #19 Pop, outdoing even their debut killer “Machine Gun.” Maybe the shift was too sudden, but “This Is Your Life” was a severe comedown on the charts.
Their label, Motown, had once held a reputation for sticking with acts it believed in and having it pay off with legendary careers once the sweet spot was identified. But with the Commodores, it might have seemed that the sweet spot was already identified–a place next to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players as purveyors of reliable funk to a devoted audience who could provide the basis for occasional pop crossover and a place to come home to once the crossover moment passed. And, anyway, what Motown had once done routinely, it was not so committed to doing at all by the mid-seventies.
And so there it might have stayed.
Except Lionel Richie had other ideas. In later years, he put it pretty simply: “I wanted us to be the black Beatles.” That meant doing all kinds of music and selling all of it to a multiracial audience.
“This Is Your Life” was his first reach for the stars and he more or less came up empty…at least on the charts.
He–or somebody–kept on believing. The followup single, “Sweet Love,” was the first from their next album. It went #5 Pop, #2 R&B, and sent The Commodores/Lionel Richie on a decade long run of crossover success that made them, if not the black Beatles, at very least superstars in their own right and, more significantly, last stand upholders of an aspirational cultural and political black bourgeoisie tradition that has since been lost at no small cost to us all. If it hangs around, waiting to be redeemed, it hangs around at least in part due to them and their ability to extend it a decade past its natural sell-by date.
That their contribution wasn’t lost in the cradle was due to persistence and belief.
Because “This Is Your Life” has every element that made Commodores’ balladry great (especially the killer arrangement). There was no good reason for it to fail and no good reason to keep believing future attempts at the same would succeed.
It wasn’t like even the greatest of them–not “Sweet Love,” not “Easy,” no, not even “Sail On,”–would be better. But believe they did….
(Note: This is the longer album version. Just because it’s better. Maybe the record company should have believed in it enough to avoid a radio edit!….Talk about an alternative universe.)
Los Angeles in the 70s: Who would you trust?
Steely Dan….or War?
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
And if it takes reading Donald Fagen’s biography to find out, I’m probably never gonna know.
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.