A couple of weeks ago I ended a decades long search for Tanya Tucker’s first four Columbia albums on CD. Turns out they’re now available in one glorious, affordable set from Morello Records. A couple of nights ago I sat down and listened to them and was reminded of why she used to keep me up nights. I cried a few times, but nothing hit quite like this, a modest hit just as she was leaving the label where she became a superstar at thirteen. It was conceived and recorded in the mid-70’s, at the height of the New Nashville, and might as well be a three-hundred-year-old Childe ballad about a thousand-year-old memory, a reminder that it takes thousands of years to build civilization and one generation to tear it down.
A concept LP about the joys, perils, and traps of rock stardom from a man who had seen more sides of the story than anybody but Elvis and, like Elvis, would find the road ending in the trap of an early death. I suppose it was possible in 1972, with E and Chuck Berry also back at the top of the charts, to think there would be more hit singles like the title track and ho-hum. But there weren’t and Rick doesn’t sound like someone who took his “comeback” for granted, but suspected it was only a temporary bit of well-earned good fortune. One of the first LPs I bought, because I knew I loved the hit from the radio and because it was cheap in a cutout bin: When I found out, a few years later, that Christgau had given it a B- , it was the first sign that he and I were not exactly going to get along. And it’s greater now, when it’s no longer seemly or excusable to take it for granted, than it was then.
9) Various ArtistsShagger’s Delight (1981)
A fabulous collection of “beach music,” a subset of 50’s R&B and light 60’s soul that Carolina college kids turned into their own little genre in the 70’s. This is heavy on the R&B, though the real keeper is the Kingpins’ “It Won’t Be This Way Always” from the early 60’s and a bridge to the future of a lot more than beach music.
8) Sam CookeLive at the Harlem Square Club (1985)
Released 20 years after Cooke’s tawdry, untimely death, this is the LP that shocked everyone who hadn’t heard his gospel music. I’d heard his gospel. I wasn’t shocked. That’s probably why, although I bought it right away, it took me a long time to hear it for what it was: A sizzling live performance in front of a sympathetic black audience by one of soul’s greatest singers and master showmen. You want to know how and why his loss was felt so deeply by so many, this is the place to start.
7) Sam CookeThe Man and His Music (1986)
Which makes this the place to finish. If I just want to sing along to some Sam Cooke, I still pull 1962’s RCA Best of. But if I want to hear as much of the whole story as I can absorb in one sitting, this double-LP is better than similar length CD-only comps. His box set doesn’t have “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I know it was a rights issue at the time…but any journey that long has to end there. This one does….without leaving off anything from “Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “Everybody Loves to Cha, Cha, Cha,” along the way.
6) Various Artists A History of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1, 1950-1958 (1987)
Ya’ll know I like the democracy of the title–“a” not “the.” And this is the cream of that very large crop even it doesn’t have Fats Domino. The sound of his piano is all over this, even if he didn’t play a lick here (and it’s possible he played any number). What more do you need than that? Heck, the way Shirley and Lee start things off, you’d be halfway through a record of crickets chirping before you noticed anyway.
5) Cyndi LauperTrue Colors (1986)
The version of “Iko, Iko” from the prior LP put me in mind of Cyndi’s brilliant use of it here so I listened to the whole thing….and was again reminded that it’s fine from beginning to end. There was a weird backlash at the time because it only had three hit singles instead of the five spun off She’s So Unusual. Because she had let the Rock side down by not becoming as popular as the Dance/Hip-Hop side’s Madonna at the last minute where those sides were anything like equal. And because it wasn’t the Greatest Album of the Decade! Funny, I thought there could only be one of those. Anyway, the singles were great, including her searing version of “What’s Going On,” (best heard here) which she fashioned as an answer record to Marvin Gaye’s where anyone else with her chops would have insisted on competing…and not even the Greatest Album of the Decade had a moment to match it segueing into an “Iko, Iko” to kill and die for.
4) Jackie WilsonThe Jackie Wilson Story (1983)
My God he was great…”Reet Petite” and the rest of the early Berry Gordy-penned hits, which the Boss used to start Motown, right on through to the early 70’s. This beautifully chosen 2-LP set doesn’t miss a trick or slow down. It’s all great but my favorite is Side Two which kicks off with “Baby Workout” and then turns to his fabulous straight blues singing. The teenage Al Green got kicked out of his house because he couldn’t stop listening to this and Elvis and he redeemed himself by being the only man who could live up to either.
3) Tanya TuckerHere’s Some Love (1976)
Tanya used to keep me up nights–and I mean until the sun came up–trying to figure her out. This was the LP that proved she didn’t need either Billy Sherill or Snuff Garrett to cut monster hits, her first really adult outing. Her wild child image has been so enduring it’s easy to forget how much she contributed to the new style of Countrypolitan. This one contains a lot of hidden gems and, like many of her LPs from this period, is not on CD. Hey Bear Family, get with it. I wanna stay up all night again!
2) Gary “U.S.” BondsFrank Guida Presents U.S. Bonds Greatest Hits (1981…I think)
If this wild ride through the swamp had been produced in New Orleans or Memphis or some other pre-qualified place it’s hard to imagine Guida, Bonds and Gene Barge not having higher profiles maybe even Hall of Fame profiles. Because it came from Norfolk, Virginia, no such luck. Too bad because it can make your day.
1) RaspberriesRaspberries’ Best: Featuring Eric Carmen (1976)
I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but this set ends where it began: with a 70’s-era concept LP about rock stardom. Only this time, it’s all about the dream of getting there, with “Overnight Sensation,” the consummate lyrical and emotional expression of the ideal, resting in the middle. It’s brilliantly programmed and every time I put it on the turntable and remember how close they came without quite making it, I have to laugh to keep from crying. Other people in my generation had “punk.” I had them. It was just enough. And this stops just short of Eric Carmen going solo and sending me into a black hole of depression!
If you want to know what it was like to live through the 70’s listen to War’s great albums If you want to know what the lost possibilities of the 70’s felt like, listen to this.
I have to confess that singer/songwriter John Prine’s voice never moved me. I got to know his songs through other people–but there were a lot of them and a lot of singers did them justice: Bonnie Raitt, Tanya Tucker, Swamp Dogg, Bette Midler, to name just a few. Everybody got up for a John Prine song.
No one who follows along here will be surprised that my favorite Prine cover was by Jackie DeShannon on her wondrous Atlantic LP, Jackie from 1972. In its double-length CD version (only half was released initially), it’s one of the great concept albums, tied together by spiritual, rather than philosophical or lyrical themes. In any version, the first cut, a rendition of Prine’s “Paradise,” set the tone–game recognizing game on a song that probably struck an even deeper autobiographical chord for her than for him.
But Joseph Hudak, with whom I was not previously familiar, wrote the text for Tanya’s album in RS and….Must it always be so?
“Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels of Laredo” nodded to her Texas raising,
Look it’s an easy mistake to make. Tanya was born in Texas and is strongly identified with the state for a number of reasons (see below for one of them). But her family moved to Arizona before she was two years old and she spent the rest of her pre-Nashville childhood there, in Utah and in Nevada. There may have been some family visits but there was no “Texas raising.”
Hence, we arrive at the 18th Maxim:
If you are writing an opinion piece and are only called upon to assert one fact, the odds of your opinion being respected will increase exponentially if you don’t muff it.
Commenter April mentioned that a single song summed up 2018 for her, personally, and wondered if others had a song that might do the same for them.
That smelled like a post to me!
I was sure I could come up with a song that encapsulated this past very interesting year of my life.
For the record (and for those of you who–shame on you!–don’t follow along in the comments), April’s record was this one, which, serendipity or no, is the theme from a movie that I have long loved but which, for reasons that might require another post some day, has hit a little closer to home of late:
I hope that means April is in a better place–like Kelly’s heroes at the end of the movie, rather than the beginning.
The minute she posed the question, a song popped into my head. I’ve spent a day or so thinking about it, but nothing has dislodged that first thought. Before I share it, let me first say that, if the question had been posed a year ago, I would have had no hesitation in knowing how 2017 was summed up because it was like a lot of years before it, and maybe even my whole life:
Bleak as that may seem, I’m always grateful for any year that doesn’t turn out like this…because there have been a few:
Last year, though, was a good year, all in all. I can now see the light at the end of a financial nightmare tunnel, which I entered one afternoon (in 2007) when I discovered my 87-year-old father had, unbeknownst to anyone, cancelled his supplemental health insurance nine months earlier. It might not have been a big deal, except he’d had a stroke that morning.
Well, when else would you find out something like that? Such is life.
2018, though, felt like a turning point. If I manage to hold on to my job (a big “if” at the moment) the coming years promise to be much brighter. We’ll see.
For now, I offer this little-known gem, modest in conception and execution, at least until the singer takes a deep breath before stepping into the final chorus.
Back in simpler times, I used to stay up all night, trying to figure out how she did it.
Now, I just smile:
If anyone has a song, album, movie, book or anything else that summed up last year for them, I hope you’ll share it. Me and April can’t be the only ones.
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 Beatles1967-1970 (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.
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 Wood18 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 YoungTonight’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 JohnRock 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.
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 RobinsonSmokin’ (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.
David Cantwell has a piece in Rolling Stonecelebrating the fortieth anniversary of a landmark year in country music. Most of the albums he recommends challenge or overturn that era’s conventional marketing categories…all while yielding big hits–most becoming staples. Based on the half I have in my collection and what I’ve heard of the others, I (as usual) heartily endorse his choices.
My only nit to pick is his preference for Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel From Montgomery” over Tanya Tucker’s….them’s fightin’ words!
Against that, and what really matters, a thousand times yes on Jeannie Kendall…
Kenny O’Dell started in Duane Eddy’s band and had some modest success as a recording artist. But he made his lasting mark as a Hall of Fame country songwriter who had a knack for scoring signature hits for era-defining country acts.
His best known song, “Behind Closed Doors,” made Charlie Rich a huge crossover star after Sam Phillips and a string of Nashville’s crack producers had been trying to put him over since the fifties. Released in 1973, the record probably did more than any other to open Nashville up to modern crossover and while that might have been a mixed blessing for those who liked to keep their country pure (it was only a year or two later that Rich himself, after reading John Denver’s name off a card that read Entertainer of the Year, proceeded to pull out his cigarette lighter and set the card on fire), it established an art and business model the town adhered to for the rest of the decade.
The New Nashville that emerged in the eighties was defined by the Judds if it was defined by anyone and O’Dell wrote their breakout hit “Mama He’s Crazy” as well.
Before, during and after all that he wrote a few dozen other hits and the several hundred other songs that won him every accolade a Nashville songwriter could hope for, from the Grammy on down.
One of those did something that meant as much to me personally as any record could. It was the first single Tanya Tucker released after she left Billy Sherrill (one of the aforementioned crack producers who had, incidentally, helmed “Behind Closed Doors”), Columbia Records and (for the time) Nashville.
Those were considered three very big mistakes at the time. Tucker was still a teenager and was supposed to know her place. The experience was not, in the end, entirely a happy one for her, either personally or professionally.
But the first single she released on her new label went #1 country, #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and became her only single to reach Billboard’s Top 40. It laid to rest any question of whether she needed Billy Sherrill or Columbia or Nashville.
I missed all that. But a few years later the record was in constant rotation on the same weird little station that played the only Pop or Oldies format in my North Florida county and introduced me to Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My,” Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak”er” and “Black Dog,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown” and more than a few timeless others.
Nothing ever opened my ears more than waiting for that one song to come back around.
And out of all that, Tanya Tucker ended up being the only singer besides Elvis and Patty Loveless who ever kept me up all night.
Kenny O’dell passed away last week at 73. He outlived the wife he married long enough ago to leave five great grandchildren behind by less than a year.
I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).
And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.
What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.
1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”) The Coasters
The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”
1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”) The 4 Seasons
I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.
1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”) The Kinks
This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.
1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”) The Shangri-Las
Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.
1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”) The Four Tops
No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)
1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”) Dion
I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.
1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”) Clarence Carter
A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.
1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.) James Brown
George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.
1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”) Fleetwood Mac
Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.
1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?) Elvis Costello and the Attractions
I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.
Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.