“There’s only one difference between me and you
You got money in your pocket and I got a hole in my shoe..
All from doing the Slummer the Slum”
Of all the dance crazes that never quite took off, The Slummer the Slum is the one I most wish had made Bandstand just to see if anybody would admit it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
It was made by my favorite fifties’ rock and roll band, which was called Lowman Pauling, who also wrote it, and released by the vocal group he accompanied, who called themselves the “5” Royales. (I reviewed their mind-blowing box set here.)
Pauling and the Royales hailed from North Carolina and started out on Apollo records in the late forties as a searing, southern-style gospel group. While still on Apollo, they began to move into the secular r&b market. Too hardcore to ever court much pop success, they nonetheless struck a chord with black audiences (the one above is in Cleveland) and had a nice run of hits that landed them a contract with the King label in Cincinnati, where their presence probably had something to do with the label’s subsequent ability to sign, among others, James Brown (a near acolyte) and Little Willie John.
Oddly enough, when they reached King, which should have given them a bigger reach, they stalled out for three years before Paul came up with the classics that established their name for good in the rock and roll universe: “Think,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Tell the Truth,” all successful for them at the time and later big hits for the obscure likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, the Shirelles, the Mamas & the Papas.
They soldiered on into the sixties without ever reaching the charts again themselves. Along the way, Brown, Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton and others paid lavish tribute and turned Lowman Pauling’s guitar into a foundational element of funk, soul and hard rock.
But he was a genius lyricist, too. Never more than here, where he limned out the politics of the Frozen Silence he wouldn’t live to see in a few hilarious, slashing lines that provide a prequel to War’s “The World is a Ghetto” and cut just as deep.
I don’t know any single record that’s a greater testimony to the bottomless nature of Rock and Roll America and fifties’ r&b.
“Don’t try to figure out where I come from I could be a fat cat from Wall Street, I could be the Purple People Eater’s son…. All from doing the Slummer the Slum….”
Though, he was invariably overshadowed by an electrifying front man, Peter Wolf, and an aptly named harp wizard ,”Magic Dick” Salwtiz, it was guitarist John Warren Geils, Jr.’s’ name which graced the marquee whenever history’s most successful bar band played the tiniest local dive or the most cavernous faraway arena, a high-wire act no one else managed quite so well.
Despite a background in jazz, Geils was, thankfully, from the Steve Cropper school, prizing economy over virtuosity. Over all the decades and all the miles,no citizen blessed with taste was ever heard to complain….If you never did it before, take this occasion to listen to the guitar parts and learn why., somewhere tonight…
Listen to just about any musical genius who lived ninety miles an hour and found death before it could find them and it’s easy to hear them chasing what they caught.
It’s a long list: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain. All carried deep desperation or (assuming the qualities can ever be disentangled) fatalism in their bones. They couldn’t have kept the devil’s laughter from being an essential part of how they sang or played if they had wanted to…which they wouldn’t have.
Listening to seven hours of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective this week, four of them on the annual Florida-Alabama-Georgia loop that carries me past my mother’s graveside, what I heard was a man who had absorbed and mastered everything from Steve Cropper-style studio concision to deep, biting blues to epic guitar god soloing to do Clapton or Hendrix proud…and not only sounded like his own man on every note, but like he had all the time in the world.
He might have been the only live-fast-die-young icon who actually died on a motorcycle, but unlike everybody else I just listed, it’s easy to hear any piece of music he ever touched, from lightest brush…
to firm embrace…
…and imagine him living another fifty years if he had only lived another day.
When I make that annual pilgrimage in the future, I won’t have to worry anymore about which music to ride along with.
Posting has been light the last couple of weeks as I’ve been crunching towards some self-imposed deadlines on a number of personal fronts…should be back to speed within the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to at least give a quick comment on this years class of RRHOF inductees.
For lists of un-inducted artists who I feel are most worthy (i.e., most “overlooked” you can go HERE, HERE and HERE. (The “5” Royales–who were merely back-doored, decades after they should have been voted in, can now join Donna Summer (who had to die) and Linda Ronstadt (who had to get Parkinson’s) in being crossed off the list.)
Inducted as “Performers”:
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Worthy as keepers of the flame. I didn’t vote for them on my five-nominee (unofficial) ballot, but they were a close call and, if I weren’t so concerned about the Hall getting whiter by the minute (even the blues acts are white now), I might well have voted for them anyway.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine band, but I haven’t understood the nominating committee’s love for them in the performing category (this was their fourth nomination). They would have been a perfect candidate for my proposed Contemporary Influence category (though, even there, one could ask why not John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who came first in the white-boy blues parade and were an even bigger cultish deal? Granted, I’m not anxious to see Eric Clapton inducted a fourth time, but still!) On the plus side, Mike Bloomfield needed to be honored some way (just wish he hadn’t needed to take up a “performer” space). And, it’s truly great that Elvin Bishop–one of rock and roll’s great characters–is going in. The Elvin Bishop Band were headliners at the only true “rock concert” I ever attended (a local act called The Fat Chance Band and pre-fame .38 Special were the undercard). I got in free (I’ve never been keen on spending money for transitory events when there are so many recorded events to buy…including a lot of awesome recordings of live events!) and nearly got thrown out for not having a ticket. Other than that, I remember the smell of ganja, a couple of extremely beautiful girls who were dressed for the smokin’ seventies and looked bored out of their skulls (whether by their thuggish looking dates or the music I was, alas, never able to determine), a disco ball that lit up for the band’s big hit (“Fooled Around and Fell In Love”) and copious amounts of vomit, chicken bones and beer bottles strewn around the floor in the dressing room the next morning, (which the African-American cleaning crew at the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton was tasked with cleaning up–leaving me to wonder, then and now, if it is not out of such things that riots are made). For giving me all the “seventies” experience I really needed, Elvin Bishop, you are, eternally, the man!
Green Day: Can’t really say much. I kind of like Dookie, which is the only music of theirs I own. I don’t think they’ve been terribly harmful and, given when they came along, that’s saying something at least.
Bill Withers: The only inductee I voted for so, of course, I’m very happy to see him go in. I’ve only really gotten to know his music past the hits in the last year or so (an experience that began with what I posted here) and he’s both great and unique. If there’s a caveat, it’s that, in the great scheme of things, he’s not quite as worthy as War or Spinners, seventies’ contemporaries who remain among the Hall’s three or four most egregious oversights.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Not long after I wrote my piece on this year’s nominees, linked above, in which I noted that I’ve always liked the idea of her better than her actual music, I caught her lengthy interview/performance on Guitar Center. Look, with what she had to put up with, she’s very, very worthy. I take it all back! Suzi Quatro and the Go-Go’s can wait! But, beyond that, she does something that’s almost unheard of post punk. When she plays rock and roll, she acts, looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life. Good on her!
Lou Reed: No particular objection, except that he’s already in for his even more deserving work with the Velvet Underground. Excepting really monumental exceptions (like Michael Jackson and, maybe, Eric Clapton) why, oh why, does the Hall keep nominating people who are already in? Oh well. At least Sting didn’t make it.
Inducted for “Musical Excellence”:
Ringo Starr: I, too, love “It Don’t Come Easy.” Also his drumming for a band that, believe it or not, has already been inducted. But…Wh-a-a-a-?
Inducted as “Early Influence”:
The “5” Royales: If you’ve been following along here, you know how I feel about this one. They were a direct, key influence on James Brown, Eric Clapton, Steve Cropper and many, many others. More to the point, they were artists who could easily stand tall in that, or any, company. They should have been inducted years ago, and as performers. I’m glad to see them inducted some way at least. And they did have important records before 1955 so this isn’t the complete stretch that Wanda Jackson was (God bless Wanda and I’m glad she’s in, but naming her an “early influence” which is supposed to be saved for pre-rock giants, was ludicrous). But having the nominating committee put them in, after the voters rejected them several times, is a sad commentary on the process.
Anyway, here’s to the most cosmic records/performances by this year’s inductees:
Soul and Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951–1967 (2014)
Five discs. Six hours of music. Eight record labels. Three distinct phases–gospel/r&b/soul. Too many personnel changes to count.
One concept: Hardcore.
Whatever they did, they did to the limit. The cast of characters changed but the basics remained. Hard-edged vocals (Mostly from Johnny Tanner in the first decade-plus and mostly from Eudell Graham at the very end.) Equally hard-edged blues-with-a-difference guitar slinging from Lowman Pauling, who also wrote the bulk of their material.
They had a small run of hits in the fifties. Seven top tens on the R&B chart, a single bottom scraper on the Pop charts. And they kept trying, year after year, without any drop in quality and without any further success. Eventually, they all, even Pauling, who should have had one of the most lucrative catalogs in the world (“Baby Don’t Do It,” “Tell The Truth,” “Dedicated To the One I Love,” “Think,”…like that) died broke and in obscurity, working as night watchmen, janitors and so forth.
The music got into practically everybody’s head. Steve Cropper. James Brown. Ray Charles. Eric Clapton. Then, you know, whoever they influenced. Pauling’s guitar playing is the absolute bedrock of both funk and the not-as-far-disparate-as-you-might-think garage band ethos (just how absolute even I, a longtime fanatic, didn’t realize until I heard all of this in one place).
The excellent notes for this model reissue, which collects not only every Royales’ release (plus a number of unreleased and alternate sides) but all the various side projects that Pauling was involved with, posit them as the principal source of soul music and a fifties equivalent (and forerunner) of the Rolling Stones.
All very true.
But what amazed me across this incredible journey was the sheer consistency of shared vision in the pursuit of the purest possible gutbucket.
I mean, I listened to all six hours this week and I don’t want to say it was down and dirty but, as of yesterday, I’ve taken up smoking and I’m going to run by a clinic on Monday.
I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.
It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.
Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).
That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.
That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.
It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”
At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.
That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.
I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.
Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.
Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.
I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.
(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)