THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020, Countdown)

10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)

The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?

9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.

You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.

If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.

6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings (1984)

Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?

If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on  Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.

Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al  Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.

3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)

So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.

Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.

2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics (1984)

There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).

More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.

til next time…

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Winter 2019, Countdown–Another All Vinyl Edition)

10) Various Artists  Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)

Ain’t it beautiful? The (reissue) cover, the concept, the overkill, the noise. Although some of these records were big hits, by the time Lenny Kaye got the idea to gather them all together in one place, there was at least some danger of them being forgotten. A bazillion spin-offs later (including three box sets put out by Rhino which, yes, yes, I have) and there are probably a thousand or so records that deserve to be forgotten but can’t be as long as somebody, anybody, is consumed by the desire to prove they can dive deeper into obscurity than you in search of a lost aesthetic that really should be ruling the world. This is still the best of the lot. I used to think I would change a cut or two, but time has only elevated it. It’s all emblazoned in my brain now. I wouldn’t change a thing.

9) Various Artists Super Girls (1986)

Okay, this I would change….a little. One last gasp at putting out a definitive girl group set, sans Phil Spector, in the vinyl era. There is plenty of great music, but the set is schizophrenic: girlish pop mixed with some hard-core R&B numbers that happened to be sung by females, with the unclassifiable Jaynetts and Shangri-Las thrown in for good measure, not to mention Brenda Lee. The schizoid problem, incidentally, would not have been solved by more Spector (the Paris Sisters are here and they only point up the set’s split personality.)

I’m glad to have it and all…but, pulling it out for the holidays, I was reminded why it never went into heavy rotation back in the days when vinyl was still king at my house. It surges….then it flags….then it surges..and you think, less might be more?

8) Various Artists 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits (1967)

This doesn’t flag. I’m not sure it was the set it might have been (a couple of re-recordings…the Platters’ side is early, pre-fame) but it’s stellar just the same. I mean, that early Platters on “Only You” isn’t just a valid take, it’s a killer.

And don’t covers sometimes make a difference? Somehow that beautiful combination of colors that Columbia Records put together to promote their recently acquired King Records catalog always creates the right mood for me. I feel like I’m in a smoky corner waiting for the floor show on the wrong side of town in 1954 from the minute I see it on the shelf.

7) Graham Parker Howlin’ Wind (1976)

I’m always surprised to rediscover, yet again, that this isn’t a punk record. England, 1976, scenester, cultish following. How can it not be punk or at least “punkish”?

It’s always better for the distinction. Really , if you aren’t the Clash, I’d rather you not be punk, or, God forbid, punkish. Just my personal prejudice. And, every time I put this on–once or twice a decade–I swear I’m gonna get to know it better.

Maybe this will be the decade it really happens.

6) Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run (1973)

Okay, this one….I’m really going to devote myself to knowing this one better. Because I really want to know if “Let Me Roll It” constitutes an act of arrogance or subversion. I mean, one day, Paul McCartney woke up and said You know, John’s been a bit mean about me of late, so I think what I’ll do is, I’ll make a record in John’s signature style but, instead of just making it a parody or something, I’ll actually do John better than John can do John. I’ll not only do the singing and writing part of it better, I’ll even do the angry bit better. And I’ll leave it there as a reminder that John can only be John, but I can be anybody. 

And I’ll let the world sort out whether any of that makes it worth a single hit of “Jet,” delivered straight to the veins without any jingling intervention by the radio.

Yep, I definitely need to listen more.

5) Toots & the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

I’m starting a little project of finishing off collecting the LPs listed on Greil Marcus’s Treasure Island recommendations from his 1979 illuminati standard Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. One way to keep myself (and my pocket book) interested is by listening to a lot of the ones I already have. This one–which I’ve had forever but somehow never acquired an intimate knowledge of–was a revelation. It’s been released in various forms on both vinyl and CD, but I can’t imagine any lineup beating the one I have. Toots Hibbert was/is frequently compared to Otis Redding (for whom I’ve been developing a whole new appreciation I’ll probably need  to write about in the future) but I hear more Ray Charles myself. That’s hardly a bad thing, especially since reggae puts even more structural limits on a singer than southern soul. I don’t count it a coincidence that Toots joined Ray in bringing whole new worlds to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Call it the vision thing.

This one’s going into heavy rotation.

4) The Maytals Do the Reggae 1966-70 (1988)

In vinyl days (which I’m happy to say are coming ’round again), this was always more my speed. Maybe it still is, even if I’m never convinced I’ve comprehended a single word.

Roots reggae at it’s Leslie Kong-produced peak, then, and, of course, I don’t mean I failed to understand it. It always sounded like a soundtrack for the horror stories my missionary parents used to bring home from reform schools (or, in my dad’s case, prisons) filled with the wretched of the modern earth.

3) Dave Mason Alone Together (1970)

Weird album. Loved by some, dismissed by others, the crit-illuminati couldn’t get a reliable read on it and, despite my innate desire to confound the confounders at every possible turn, neither can I.

It fits the tenor of its times: Bloozy, Anglo, Laid Back Cali, uncredited Eric Clapton sideman-ship floating around in there somewhere. I can’t really make sense of it. But what do I know? The Dave Mason I loved was the one who had a big pop hit with “We Just Disagree,” which still makes me smile and remember–I like the rest but in thee end it just makes me shrug, no matter how much I want the worlds to collide.

2) Warren Zevon Stand in the Fire (1980)

One of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Performance freed up something in Zevon that rarely got loose in the studio. His vocals were better, his bands were tighter, even his lyric improvs were better. (Has there ever been a leap of faith into a dark zone that landed more beautifully on point than changing the line after There’s a .38 Special up on on the shelf from If I start feeling stupid I’ll shoot myself to And I don’t intend to use it on myself?) No, of course there hasn’t.

Bonus tracks later added to the CD only subtracted from the overall effect. It’s perfect as it stands, from the opening title track (written for the tour) all the way down to a “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” that links the album to the history of the world and, unimaginably, tops the original.

1) War Greatest Hits (1976)

Was it really possible to sum up the entire decade, and all the decades to come, in 1976?

It was, but you would never have known it without these guys. Without them, it all just felt incoherent.

In a generous mood, I try to believe “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” was/is the record that best defined my beloved 70’s. But in my heart I know it is/was “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” even if my only cavil with this mind-bending album is that it substitutes the powerful hit single version for the long version that’s too harrowing for words.

Til next time then!

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Summer 2019, Countdown)

I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:

10)  The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.

It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.

But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.

9)  Ringo Starr: Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)

ringo1Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One?  Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.

8)  Clarence Carter: Snatching It Back (1992)

clarencecarter1

I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?

Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.

What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?

It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.

It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.

7)  Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)

My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”

I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the  Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.

6)  Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)

buddyholly1

You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.

Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.

5)  Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (1976)

bozzscaggs

It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.

And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An  earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.

4)  Jimmy Reed: The Anthology (2011)

Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.

3)  The Jackson 5: Anthology (1976)

The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.

So it goes.

2)  Earl Lewis and the Channels: New York’s Finest (1990)

Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?

Besides being transported I mean.

1)  The Chi-Lites: Greatest Hits (1972)

I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)

An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.

I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.

And I wonder if we really want to.

Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.

I won’t hold my breath.

Till next time…

TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (Track-By-Track)

Two Steps From the Blues (1961)
Bobby “Blue” Bland

(This is the third in my Track-By-Track sub-series on my twenty favorite vocal albums of the 20th century. We’re up to 1961!)

There’s no one quite like Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the late fifties he invented a new blues voice, one that balanced shouting and crooning so effortlessly that he can be heard all over the voices who came behind him. Not much else connects the rawest Otis Redding to the smoothest Aaron Neville. Moreover Bland didn’t stay on the surface. He went as deep as any of his acolytes and, for the most part, he went there first. This, collecting sides he cut at sessions in 1960 and some modest hits he had recorded in the late fifties was his definitive statement. You won’t be able to tell which is which without a scorecard, nor do such distinctions matter to any but statisticians. It’s a concept album because Bland’s was a conceptual career. They called him The Sinatra of the Blues. I’d say, not lightly, the comparison flattered Sinatra.

 

“Two Steps From the Blues”One month from the day I first met you, your promises proved to be untrue. Thus begins the journey. Isolated, desperate, yearning. All of that blues aficionados had heard before. What might have been new, even on a Bobby “Blue ” Bland record was the delicacy, the precision, the desire to make each rain drop land softly, softly, like a prelude to Chinese water torture….or the sweet relief of turning it off.

“Cry, Cry, Cry”–Why? So it could be continued for another minute or two before being followed by a hurricane shout? Hey, why not. What else could follow it.

“I’m Not Ashamed”Some people call me the biggest fool in town, but I’m not ashamed. He’s ashamed. He’s just helplessly, hopelessly caught in a trap which black women had been told for centuries they couldn’t possibly build strong enough to hold a man. They probably always knew better, but I bet it felt good hearing a man finally admit it.

“Don’t Cry No More”–Now the lyrics turn towards comfort, even as the voice gets rawer, deeper, faster. Towards the end, he starts to croon, probably to exclude all the men from the conversation.

“Lead Me On”You know how it feels, you understand, what it is to be a stranger in this unfriendly land. Possibly the loneliest record ever made. The rest of the album provides most of the competition. The phrasing and timbre on the last line give a clear guide to what this gut-bucket blues man learned from Nat “King” Cole.

“I Pity the Fool”I pity the fool that falls in love with you…and expects you to be true. The surging horns are a straight harbinger of 60’s soul. Bland turns the neat trick of shouting the verses and crooning the chorus. The playing under the final chorus presages jazz rock and contains everything useful it would ever be. He croons over that, too.

“I’ve Just Got to Forget You”–Now he tries to get over what we know by now you can’t get over. Certainly not while listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“Little Boy Blue”–Told you so.

“St. James Infirmary”–Out of nine hundred versions, many of them classic, the only one you need. He closes by reminding the world she’ll never find a man like him, presumably not even in Heaven…and finding three ways to say She’s gone, none of which give away whether we should feel worse for her or him.

“I’ll Take Care of You”I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. I can tell by the way your carry yourself. Loneliness presented as a disease comprised of music, sound, arrangement, melody. The cure is ten percent words, ninety percent the voice singing them.

“I Don’t Want No Woman”–The closest he comes to a conventional reading of a conventional blues. Also, not coincidentally, the closest he comes to straight out defiance. l don’t want no woman telling me how to live my life. If the rest of this album didn’t exist, you might even believe him.

“I’ve Been Wrong So Long”–A complete summation of all that has gone before, including the shout of defiance…now sublimated, but, no matter what the words say, not entirely dismissed.

See, I told you it was a concept album!

After Bobby “Blue” Bland, certainly after this album, black music could never be the same. And, in the twentieth century, when black music couldn’t be the same, neither could America. All this we’ve forgot. But the journey goes on.

Bobby “Blue” Bland (far right) with Elvis Presley and Junior Parker

[Next up: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat]

HOWLIN’ WOLF aka THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR ALBUM (Track-By-Track)

Howlin’ Wolf (The Rockin’ Chair Album) (1962)

[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]

Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.

If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.

For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.

Aha, I thought. This is the one.

Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.

I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.

For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.

“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.

The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.

“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?

“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.

“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!

“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby.  So much for the light-hearted side.

“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.

“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.

“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!

“Back Door Man”The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?

“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.

“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.

Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)

THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG STORY-VOL. 4: FAVORITES (Track-By-Track)

The Louis Armstrong Story-Vol. 4: Favorites (1956)

[Note: As far as I know, none of the four volumes in the Louis Armstrong Story series have ever been issued on CD. This is a review of Columbia’s vinyl release CL 854 in mono. No collection should be without it, even if you have all the music in other configurations or on other delivery systems.  As is, it’s one of the world’s few perfect things.]

Louis Armstrong is now so routinely called the greatest American musician of the twentieth century it has become hard to hear him through the fog of hagiography. It’s like hearing the Beatles forever described as the Greatest Rock and Roll Band. It might be true but enough already!

Whenever I need reminding of the power of Armstrong’s actual genius–to clear my heart and soul of the cant thrown up by a Crit-Illuminati filled with cramped spirits determined to shove him down my throat without demonstrating the least understanding of what they’re selling–I come back to this LP.

Assembled by Columbia Records in the 1950s as part of a “Golden Era Series” which, as the liner notes say was “produced and edited by George Avakin, noted authority on jazz, from original masters which he has assembled and preserved in Columbia’s vaults at Bridgeport, Conn.”.

I count nine raised pinkies in twenty-five words. Finger sandwiches at the dean’s house. Don’t be late.

If you can transcend that you can transcend anything.

Louis Armstrong didn’t always transcend, but when he did, he set the American century in motion.

The focus here is on the Pop side of Pops. Like Elvis and Ray Charles (and no one else) after him and no one before him, he could turn dross into gold. Like them, he sometimes abused supreme talent’s supreme privilege.

There’s none of that here. This is hardly everything you need to know. But it covers more ground than any other short version of his mighty career: twelve early-thirties’ sides bridging his cosmic Hot Fives and Sevens’ canon from the twenties, with the ingenious, perhaps necessary, masks he was forced to wear for the rest of his life. Inevitably some of them wore him. Here, he was in full control.

“Knockin’ a Jug”–Of course my favorite of Armstrong’s vocal LP begins with an instrumental, a little miracle of rhythm and ease that exemplifies its title with a surfeit of wit and no trace of irony. Call it a modest fanfare and if that sounds like a contradiction, well you might be getting the idea of what Louis Armstrong is about.

“Body and Soul”–Now he goes to work on the Great American Songbook….and finds depths the Tin Pan Alley geniuses probably didn’t suspect existed. They were masters of surfaces. Armstrong was a master of linking the surface to what lay beneath. Here he sets the boundaries of his early formula–a lengthy orchestral intro that turns out to be a setup. The way he sings I’ve lost my one and only turns the intro on its head.

“Star Dust” -1–A first take on what many consider the era’s finest popular melody (courtesy of Hoagy Carmicheal, Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics), here completely deconstructed and put back together as something rougher and more beautiful than even this most sublime of formal compositions.

“Star Dust”-2–Second take, with Armstrong’s improvised “Oh, memory” there to break your heart right before his horn lifts the pieces. It’s one of those interpolations nobody else could get away with.

“Black and Blue”–A vocal so powerful and pure (and rough) your oh memory might not hold the lengthy intro’s muted, painful playing or the pared-to-the-essence outro’s sudden burst of defiance. Ralph Ellison copped the words in between for the prologue of Invisible Man. Armstrong pruned the original Broadway lyric (the tune was Fats Waller’s) and until Aretha Franklin recorded Otis Redding’s “Respect,” it was the greatest cover in American music. Then again, it still might be.

“Shine”–Bottomless. A 1910 coon song dressed up as a lament (and based on a beating witnessed in a 1900 New York City race riot). Armstrong sings it like an ancestral memory, with the scatting that would later become schtick (because soon enough there was nowhere else for it to go and no way to let it go) used to say things that couldn’t be conveyed by words in 1931 any more than in 1900 or 1910 or this morning.

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”–According to the liner notes, this was the “first in the familiar formula (trumpet-vocal-trumpet), with the band playing straight man to the star.” Though there were no less than eight hit versions, before and after, this wasn’t one of them, probably because it was too strong for the pop chart of any era. A lot of justifiable attention has been paid to his remarkable phrasing but there’s been too little appreciation of Armstrong’s limber timbre, which could funnel the lightest emotions into the deepest and back again by shifting a single piece of gravel in his throat the merest centimeter. Here he makes not being able to give you anything but love sound like being trapped at the bottom of a well he’s bound to escape from. Just because we can all relate doesn’t make it radio fare.

“Lazy River”–After a brief intro that lets you know the river in question is slow and sweet as molasses, he says “Yeah.” If that was all he said it would be enough, but of course he takes you on a tour, horn, lips, tongue and all and floats the world away. Its the kind of river that can only exist in the American south and Armstrong is the only man who could dream the Klan hiding on the banks away and make you believe it.

“Dear Old Southland”–The sound of longing for a home that went missing. Instrumental except for a few offhand spoken words but if you can’t hear his horn singing you might be spiritually deaf.

“If I Could Be With You”–Here he messes with the trumpet-vocal-trumpet formula, leading off with a baby-oh-baby-I-want-to-be-with-you-tonight before the trumpet plays. By the time he starts singing again he only needs to add a line to two to make his effect complete. Really baby. He wants to be with you tonight. The closest thing to a straightforward reading on the album which means it only has four left turns in it.

“I’m Confessin'”–A lovely, flowing reverie kicked off by a plucked guitar which quickly shifts to a blues and then shifts again to a Hawaiin feel (with light orchestra) behind the vocal which slides along until it’s time to give way to the trumpet.

“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy”–All setting up this hot little number. The song is barely there, an excuse to let loose. Let loose he does: as if to say “Haven’t I done enough?” Yes, Louis, you’ve done enough. And I done forgot the words works whether you think he really forgot the words or not and whether you think he thought the words were worth forgetting…or not.

[NOTE: Not long after I started The Round Place in the Middle, by way of introducing myself, I did a series of “favorites” posts. One was my twenty favorite vocal albums irrespective of genre. You can find the list here. Favorites was the first entry on the list. I’m planning to do track-by-track for the whole list, in chronological order. Hoping to do at least one a week, but in any case, I’ll get to them all eventually! NEXT UP: Howlin’ Wolf, The Rocking Chair LP]

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2019, Countdown)

10) Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (1998)

One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.

9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)

Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.

8) Cyndi Lauper: Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)

Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.

7) Otis Redding: Pain In My Heart (1964)

I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.

6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)

The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”

5) Various Artists: Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)

Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.

4) John Mellencamp: Words & Music (2004)

Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.

Stick it in the CD player and drive.

3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)

Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with  the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.

And we all know the reason.

2) Prince: The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)

He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.

1) Manfred Mann: The Best of

I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!

And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on!  But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?

On that note:

Til next time.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha Franklin

Aretha deserved every encomium she’s received, alive or dead.

But I found it curious, in the wake of her recent passing that I didn’t read much that really tried to place her in time–it was as though she was always there, or bound to be there. Her simultaneous arrivals at Atlantic Records, the altar of Artistic Genius, and the apex of Soul were noted but only as signposts along some inevitable road.

There was nothing “inevitable” about it.

When Jerry Wexler took his latest signing down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first weeks of 1967, hoping to catch some of what Percy Sledge had laid down there a year earlier, he had already pronounced that he was going to “let Aretha be Aretha.”

A fine sentiment, but it was no-wise clear, to him or anyone else, what that even meant.

Aretha had been a gospel prodigy, then a semi-successful purveyor of supper club pop, gaining a reputation as a singer’s singer while releasing nine modest sellers at Columbia records in the first half of the sixties.

The record on how committed she was to making it as a pop singer is mixed–my guess is Aretha would have been more than a little satisfied if those records had sold well enough to make her the new Sarah Vaughn.

But there was a world beyond her (or anyone’s) ambition, and the world of 1967 was roiling with social and political cross-currents that left a lot of people wondering if the center would hold.

In the year of there’s something happening hear what it is ain’t exactly clear, and Janis, Jimi and the Who torching (literally and figuratively) the stage at the Monterey Pop festival (Rock and Roll America’s first serious turn toward paganism, coming soon to a theater near you!), not to mention relentless bad (or anyway nervous) news from Viet Nam, the inner city, the college campus, I Never Loved a Man was a strange sound indeed.

When the white boy critics who still make up the vast bulk of the crit-illuminati  write and speak of Gospel, they have a habit of setting if off from the world, as though it were some form of exotica, like third-world cuisine or the day they discovered the Kama Sutra.

One more way Black America is both eminently exploitable and not-quite-real.

Dollars-to-doughnuts not one of them is capable of holding the meaning of “gospel” (or Gospel) in his head for more than five seconds.

Adding a few actual black people (or women) to the mix has not altered this dynamic in the least.

They’re all still proudest of their atheism (i.e., their distance from belief).

I Never Loved a Man is, among many other things, the last shout of the gospel-based Civil Rights Movement. (By 1967, the old, non-violent, New Testament coalition was already strained at the seams by the New Militancy. Whether Martin Luther King could have held it together is an open question. Making sure it stayed open long enough to become a faded, not-quite-real, memory was the biggest reason so many people who had means, motive and opportunity wanted him dead.)

That’s appropriate enough. Gospel means the same whether it’s lower or upper case.

It means Christian revelation.

Or Revelation.

Every day of the week, including Saturday night.

Since it entered History, it’s  been the source of every move towards liberation History offers.

Same in 1967 as it ever was.

The preacher’s daughter knew. By 1967, she already had a lifetime of experience, in and out of the church.

Listen again:

“Respect”–Aretha “stole” Otis Redding’s song (his word, not mine) by taking the sound straight back to church and thereby lifting the lyric from the personal to the universal. If you listen deep enough you’ll hear why the Gospel message spread like wildfire through the ancient world from slave’s mouth to mistress’s ear. In the eyes of the new god, every man was suddenly a king, every woman suddenly a queen. Maybe the message had been around before. If so, it had failed to convince. No longer. R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Find out what it means to me in other words. And that’s not even counting the part about not wanting all your money.

“Drown in My Own Tears”–Sunday morning piano backing a confessional vocal devoted to worldly abandonment. You get it reverend.*

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”–Sex presented as the thing Jesus most needs to save you from. The question stays in the air for the length of the song: Can He? Can even He? A decade later, singing “Belle,” Al Green answered in the affirmative. Aretha left it open-ended. Neither approach can ever wear out, because it’s an (if not “the”) eternal question.

“Soul Serenade”–Dave Marsh was one of the few critics who later picked up on the value of Aretha’s pop career. Church singing aims for abandonment, pop is built around avoiding that very temptation. This is a perfect blend. It starts quiet–a consummate display of discipline–and builds as if the singer and her audience…er, congregation…are lifted, moment by moment.

“Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”–A reverie that almost slides by. Smooth right until the end, when she takes off for the sky.

“Baby, Baby, Baby”–Is reach out for me boy still directed at the man she loved the way she loved a man before? Either way, she’s the guilty one….but only if loving him is a crime. Believe me, that’s a Pentecostal voice. No surprise she wrote it with her sister.

“Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)”–The church piano reasserts itself. There’ s no build. She jumps right in. Sometimes you have to grab ’em right off. Wouldn’t want anybody nodding off in the back pew…let alone the front pew. This is the Sex Sermon folks. Second Sunday of the month! Wake up!

“Good Times”–Perhaps its time to mention that the girl had guts. Taking on–and taking down–Otis Redding might be enough for some people, but not for Aretha Franklin in 1967. She set her sights on Sam Cooke too. And if nobody could ever take down Sam Cooke, she certainly looked him in the eye on the way to higher ground. With an Ode to Saturday Night of course!

“Do Right Woman–Do Right Man”–Great as the vocal is, a surer sign of Aretha’s command of the studio (doubtless another benefit of the Columbia experience) is the overdubbed organ and piano, both played by her. I Never Loved a Man wasn’t only a vocal triumph, after all. She was in the process of proving herself a brilliant keyboardist and arranger as well.

“Save Me”–If there can be such a thing as a hidden gem on an album this popular, epic and influential, this would be it. A gut-bucket lick. A wailing vocal. The simplest arrangement on the record…and it just explodes. And somebody–maybe even the record company–knew albums exist for set ups….And the only song that could close this epic was….

“A Change is Gonna Come” –After the heartfelt intro–he had been a family friend, she didn’t have to pretend–Aretha didn’t add anything to Sam Cooke’s original, either temporally or spiritually. No one could. She sounds like she knows it–this is as reverent of its source as “Respect” was irreverent. But she also sounds like she knows that the moment could add something–that, two years after Cooke’s death, the idea that change was not going to come, had already reasserted itself. To turn that reassertion on its head was, perhaps, to rage against the dying of the light. Else affirmation of the sinner’s doubt. Given all that was at stake, no one who felt the loss, then or now, could blame her for trying too hard.

Aretha Franklin used the I Never Loved a Man sessions to set herself free–to insist that anyone not reaching for Higher Ground will soon be walking on the Devil’s dirt. The brilliance–and the resistance to the tides of History–flowed for a decade before the weight of carrying a burden no one should have to carry alone overwhelmed her. Being Queen proved as lonely as being King. At some point she retreated to the safe harbor of professionalism. There was no long fall and she always retained the capacity to, now and again, lift the heart.

But every reason she ever mattered was born in 1967, at the sessions, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and New York, that produced this album.

Whether she–or any of the tiny number who could ever be called her peers– lived and sang in vain will, alas, be up to us.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2018, Countdown)

10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)

Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.

Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.

That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.

I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.

9) The Beatles (1962-1966) (1973)

The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.

And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.

8) The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)

I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)

I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.

But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.

And…..

I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.

7) Blondie (1976)

A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.

One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.

6) Brenton Wood 18 Best (1991)

Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”

I’d give this a close listen  before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.

I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.

5) Neil Young Tonight’s the Night (1975)

Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.

I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)

One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.

I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.

4) Elton John Rock of the Westies (1975)

Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.

Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.

3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)

This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.

There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.

Where the one exception came from nobody knows, because for fury, menace and freedom, it has seldom been matched anywhere, and there is no additional evidence, on this fine album or anywhere else, that David Lindley is the sort of dude who would run straight over you with his ’49 Mercury and never even notice.

2) Moby Grape Live (2018)

I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.

What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.

I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.

1) Smokey Robinson Smokin’ (1978)

CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.

It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.

And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.

If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.

I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.

Your mileage may vary.

“You say it, we play it….”

Til next time.

NOW MUSCLE SHOALS THEY HAD THE SWAMPERS….(Rick Hall, R.I.P.)

…and, yes, they were known to pick a song or two.

But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.

They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.

But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.

It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).

Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.

I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).

Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.