There’s evidently a meme going around (or perhaps Terry Teachout is trying to start one) called Seven Albums to Know Me By….
I just picked the first seven that came to mind…but I bet if I thought about it a long-g-g-g-g time, it wouldn’t look much different:
The Impressions The Vintage Years (1958-72, released 1977)
The greatest album ever assembled and the history of Black America from the late 50’s to today…in 28 impeccable sides.
The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)
Well, it did save my life. Funny: Beauty and the Beat, which I’ve listened to far more often, wouldn’t tell you a thing about me. Art is funny that way.
Elvis Presley From Elvis in Memphis (1969)
Not even really the cream of the greatest vocal sessions ever recorded. But programmed as its own kind of perfection…and “Long Black Limousine” carries E’s you-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-me-lookin’-at-you-lookin’-at-meethos, evident as far back as the Sun sessions, to its natural conclusion. Living in two minds and observing one’s self from afar–these things I am in touch with.
The Persuasions: Chirpin’ (1977)
The greatest album cover. The music? No words. Nothing defines you quite like that which leaves you speechless.
Al Green The Belle Album (1977)
He brought me safe thus far…through many drunken country bars.
My spiritual autobiography even though I’ve never been near a drunken country bar. Art being funny again.
The Four Seasons Story (1962-70, released 1975)
Absurdist high harmonies and drums loud enough to lock the world out. If you know that much about me, you know me very well. There have been greater collections on CD, but this was there when I was in survival mode.
The Byrds Greatest Hits (1965-66, released 1967)
If not for this…who knows about the rest?
(If seven had been ten: Shangri-Las ’65, War Greatest Hits, Dusty in Memphis).
…and now back to the Democratic Primary Season! bwahahahahahahahahaha!
“People Get Ready” 1965 Artist: The Impressions Writer: Curtis Mayfield
The Impressions in 1965. Curtis Mayfield at far right.
“That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”
(Source: Liner notes from Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977, MCA, 1992)
“My mother always liked symphony music, and even as a youngster my foundation was out of the church, whereas my grandmother was the minister of the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church….When I wrote ‘People Get Ready,’ I was of a spiritual mind I suppose. I can’t quite recall what I was doing but the honesty of my gospel upbringing probably had a lot to do with it. I’m so pleased that it can please all who might listen to it. It doesn’t matter what faith you may have, the lyrics are of value to everybody.”
(Source: Liner notes from The Curtis Mayfield Story, Rhino box set, 1996)
Back in 1985 I was working for an ad agency and the owner liked to keep MTV running in his office because that was where the cutting edge of the soap-selling business was in those days. One evening before heading out I dropped by the office to say my good night and he and one of the layout artists were sitting in there critiquing the hot MTV item of the moment which was Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s cover of “People Get Ready.”
“This is great!” my boss said. The layout artist, who was in a rock band in his spare time, agreed. “Great guitar,” he said.
“It’s based on an old Negro spiritual,” my boss said.
“Well,” I said. “It’s really not that old. Curtis Mayfield wrote it. It’s from 1965.”
Now I wasn’t the known entity I later became, the guy who knew stuff about music from the sixties. I mean, I could have even told them the Impressions’ original hit #14 in Billboard--in those days I was very good with chart numbers—but there seemed little point since they didn’t even believe me about the Curtis Mayfield part or the 1965 part.
“Wait…the guy who did ‘Superfly’?” one of them finally said, after we had gone round and round for a bit.
“Yeah,” I said. “Same guy.”
That clinched it. I was crazy. Prone to making stuff up. Any chance of them believing me went by the wayside.
No way the Superfly Guy wrote that old Negro Spiritual, “People Get Ready.”
I told them it was okay. If I hadn’t known better I wouldn’t have believed it myself.
* * * *
“People Get Ready” is one of those songs, like “Peace in the Valley,” (written by Thomas Dorsey in the 1930s), which doesn’t feel like it could have been written less than a few centuries ago. It feels honed out of some kind of folk tradition, passed from balladeer to minstrel and back again. Usually, these songs have some kind of gospel overtone, and that attendant “feel” of permanence, of having been inspired by something more than commerce, is, like religion itself, counted exotic among the crit-illuminati and all unduly influenced by them.
The nonbelievers are never quite so hard to impress as they make out.
I’m guessing Curtis Mayfield understood that. Like most of the early rock and soul pioneers, he was a believer. He grew up in church. His grandmother was a minister. His singing group, the Impressions, was modeled on a specific style of black gospel called “jubilee.” (His original group was The Northern Jubilees so the linkage was more than usually specific.)
All of that mattered to who Curtis Mayfield became in the context of both the Civil Rights movement and the soul music of the sixties and seventies. His catalog is shot through with Christian imagery and just about all the nonbelievers were impressed by his commitment even though exactly none of them–including the legion of black and white vocalists who have covered the song in the nonbelieving style of Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck–ever gave evidence of understanding the belief system that commitment rested on.
People get ready, there’s a train a comin’ You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
Despite Mayfield’s own later suggestion (quoted above) that this was a universalist message, it’s really only “universal” in the sense that New Testament Christianity is indeed open to all.
All you need is faith, open the doors and board ’em Don’t need no ticket you just thank the Lord.
Four lines in, and we’re already deep in the weeds of New Testament arguments worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The old fights have been closed down…faith is for all, Calvinism, the underpinning of both American individualism (good) and America slavery (bad), has been rejected for something higher. It’s a transformation Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised Calvinist, converted to Congregationalism and, after a beloved son’s death, a dabbler in forms of Spiritualism Curtis Mayfield’s grandmother would doubtless have recognized.
In the heat of the sixties, as “Uncle Tom” was being re-jiggered yet again to signify collaboration and weakness, Mayfield was now squarely in the middle of debates that were no longer going to be left to his own traditions. Not to Spiritualism. Not to Congregationalism. Not even to Christianity itself. As Greil Marcus would later write:
“With the Impressions and later as a soloist, Mayfield had been exploring a somewhat bland, Martin Luther King-style progressivism, for years, complete with open heart, boundless optimism, tortured lyrics, and brotherhood speeches to nightclub audiences.”
Tomming, in other words. Rather like Martin Luther King himself before his common honorific was transformed from the spiritual “Reverend” to the secular “Doctor” (and before the “Reverend” was subsequently transferred to Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, the better to mock the belief the honorific was meant to represent).
Funny how, in the world of the nonbeliever, it’s always optimism that’s uncomplicated.
And easy to identify.
Marcus’s seventies-era cynicism (he was juxtaposing Mayfield’s Negro Spiritual mode with his Superfly mode) was later replaced with rank sentimentalism. Cynicism–the rejection of optimism’s naturally complicated state in juxtaposition to the inherent cruelty of faith’s alternatives in time, space, nature, “reality”–usually turns out that way.
That’s the trick to throwing down with the Sermon on the Mount.
Once you claim it, you’re either on the train or not.
So people get ready, for the train to Jordan Picking up passengers, coast to coast. Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em There’s hope for all, among the loved the most.
And that’s what keeps throwing the torch-bearers of Left (New or Old) and Right (Alt or Old).
Faith is the key.
And within that context–and that context only–there’s hope.
There’s no in between for the believer. The in between is for those Mayfield took on next, those whom all practitioners of the New Testament’s evangelizing faith, Spiritualist, Congregationalist and Calvinist alike, know Jesus promised to spew from his mouth:
There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner. Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own….Believe me now!
Now it’s getting specific. Now it’s down to cases, where belief is the hardest master and true tolerance, the New Testament kind, is the hardest master of all. All those nonbelievers who thought they didn’t need the ticket just because it couldn’t be bought now find themselves right where the Spiritualist minister’s gently remonstrating, jubilee singing grandson wants them: between the rock of “hopeless sin” (i.e., all sin not specifically forgiven by faith in the one God) and the hard place of the belief they might have been forgiven for thinking could be purchased without cost, what with not needing any baggage and all.
Easier still, to get confused, considering that Mayfield and his soulmates (Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, now swapping leads, now in close harmony) have remained cool in the face of Pentecostal transcendence. The sound is seductive, backing the spirit of the original promise.
The sound remains so.
The promise does not.
Have pity on those, whose chances grow thinner For there’s no hiding place, against the kingdom’s throne
Yes, find the pity within yourself, just before you remind the sinner how pitiless his fate is–a fate that knows no hiding place.
No hiding place from what again?
The kingdom’s throne. That’s what.
The one that brooks no hiding place.
So now the first verse repeats, not as an assurance, but a warning. The nonbelievers who jumped on the train in the first verse are invited to jump off.
So said the prophet in 1965, even if, in later years, he sometimes forgot the force of his own warning….in interviews if not his music.
In 1965, there was a world coming where elections, let alone “debates,” would become affairs devoid of meaning, a jousting between sets of nonbelievers who think paradise, having been transferred by the Reformation (it’s unfair to call it “Protestant” since a Catholic Reformation accompanied it, each multiplying the force of the other into Christian Europes’ five-hundred-year winning streak, for which the slave trade that brought Curtis Mayfield’s ancestors to the New World–and the New Testament–would stand as the serpent in the garden) from the Golden Past to the Golden Future, can now be claimed in the Golden Present, if only we vote the right party to power…or, better yet, eliminate all its opposition!
Curtis Mayfield would have other songs that spoke to the dangers of all that. The Superfly soundtrack wasn’t nearly as far from “there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne” as either Greil Marcus or my Reagan-lovin’ boss at the ad agency thought.
Sad part is, being nonbelievers, they probably still think there’s a hiding place, somewhere, waiting just for them.
There are times when I listen to Doo Wop and wonder why I ever listen to anything else. The silly music often renders everything else silly by comparison.
And anytime I get a notion I know something about it, something about the form itself or the larger context in which it either grew from or birthed the air around it (depending on whether you’re in the mood to argue for the chicken or the egg), all I have to do is sit with it a while and I’m readily disabused.
Take this little volume, where thirty-four cuts, from a single twelve-month period that kicked off the age of rock n roll’s supposed “nadir,” yield a dozen or more one-offs that concede nothing to the famous names which here included the Clovers, Coasters, Drifters, Belmonts, Isley Brothers, Dells, Shirelles, Little Anthony.
Some of those one-offs were big national hits, or have become sufficiently known through famous covers that they may as well have been: “Sea of Love,” “Hushabye,” “Hully Gully.”
And then some have remained hidden, waiting in the ether for obsessives in foreign lands (Germany, in this case) to give them a new context. Something like this, which, if it had hit, might have taken Motown in a whole other direction:
And even that wasn’t as startling as the two records by famous names that didn’t hit either, but here live to leave the present speechless in wonder, not because they are better than what surrounds them, but because, shockingly, they aren’t.
Now that I’ve recovered from my recent illness, I’m happy to say that I’m able to pinpoint the exact moment when I reached bottom…and then began to bounce back.
Things had gone very far south when, after several days of being on a fast track to the bathroom every time they showed a cheeseburger on the TV screen, which I couldn’t turn off if I wanted to take my mind off my misery (endless images of face-eating zombies or spiders crawling from black holed skulls were not a problem…the sight of grilled meat was an eruption bringer), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a seedy looking motel in Decatur, Alabama.
To my knowledge I had never previously visited Decatur, which is somewhere up around the north end of the state. It was late in the evening, maybe past midnight. A rather nondescript clerk (short, dumpy, swarthy, grumpy) took my information and grunted a room number while he handed me a key.
I didn’t catch the name of the place.
Exhausted, I stumbled to the room and fell on the bed without really paying much attention to my surroundings.
At eight o’clock the next morning, I awoke, amazingly refreshed. Best night’s sleep I’d had in years.
When I looked around the room, I found that it wasn’t really so much a conventional motel room as a sort of lounge, not unlike the one my dad and I slept in the second year we traveled back from North Florida to paint the Orlando-Seminole Jai Alai fronton in the summer of ’76.
Lots of open space. A sort of lounge couch which I had slept on. Some books and CDs and stray articles of clothing strewn about.
After I oriented myself, I started gathering up the stuff, which all seemed to belong to me, though I couldn’t imagine why I was traveling with it, or why I had spread it all over the room like that. I was in the process of doing this when a chubby, Jheri-curled black kid in a janitor’s uniform peeked in through the front door, which I suddenly realized was made of see-through plate glass. I waved for him to come on in, figuring maybe he needed to clean the place, but he just smiled and waved back and then walked away.
Nonplussed, I went about gathering my stuff. In the process I realized one of the CDs I had brought with me was this one:
I looked around to see if the room had a CD player, and, naturally, this being a flea bag motel in Decatur, Alabama, with a flickering sign and a half-paved parking lot, they had a state of the art one. Standalone. With built-in speakers that beat anything I have at my house.
I immediately set about trying to discern how it worked, and, in no time at all, I had the Impressions blasting loud and strong.
“It’s all right, have a good time, say it’s all right…”
I kept gathering up my stuff, still in a humming, singing mood, though getting a little bit frustrated because it seemed the more I gathered, the more stuff there was. Eventually, I found some plastic bags and dumped as much in them as I could and started transporting stuff to my car, which was parked right outside the plate-glass door.
For a while, as I carted the endless bags, I noted that mine was the only car in the parking lot.
Somewhere in there, my eye fell on one of those clock/calendar things (Was it on the front of the CD player? An electric sign by the street? The memory hazes.) and I discovered that the reason I felt so good was that I had slept through an entire day and night and awakened on the morning of my second day at this little establishment.
“I’m so proud of be-ing…lo-o-oved by you…”
Very soon after that, I cottoned that this might be a problem, because I had no cash and, though I had enough gas to get home, I knew I only had enough money in my bank account to pay for one night at the motel with my debit card.
True, I couldn’t remember asking how much the room was. But I was sure it had to be more than twenty dollars a day.
The thought of calling someone to wire me the money crossed my mind, but I knew that, realistically, all my friends and family are even broker than I am, and, anyway, I didn’t remember any of their phone numbers and didn’t want to ask the office about phone usage, so that wasn’t really a good option.
After that, it was pretty clear that I had to make a getaway.
I’d send ’em a check, of course, once I was safely home and, you know, out of the state of Alabama.
I certainly intended to check the name of the place before I drove off. I had no intention of cheating anybody!
I would have headed straight out, but first I had to retrieve my Impressions’ CD from the state of the art standalone player that was still blasting away in my room.
“You must be-li-e-e-ve me, no matter what the people might say, you know, it just didn’t happen that way…”
Back inside I went.
There I found that the CD player had transformed itself into a cheap cardboard box that couldn’t possibly play anything, not even when I took the cover off and found a fake reel-to-reel tape player inside.
“But the music’s still playing,” I thought.
How could that be?
Because I had transferred the disc to the CD player in my car. That was how!
Back to the car!
Only the car wasn’t there.
The music was still playing…the Impressions were moving right along through the sixties. “People get ready, there’s a train a’ comin’.” But my car was gone.
In its place was a monster pickup which was hauling an Airstream trailer that stretched across the whole parking lot. I had to walk around the back end of it to see the office and whether or not my car had been moved in that direction.
It had not been. It was gone.
Just then, a man with a long red-haired pony tail came around the side of the pickup and I asked if he had seen my car.
“Little black one?” he said.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Oh yeah, I moved it down to the other end there.”
Right about there, things started to get a little strange.
I wasn’t worried yet. Just a little disoriented. It didn’t seem like that parking lot had been so big that I would have missed my car if it was there.
But, sure enough, when I walked back around the Airstream, I saw that the rest of the “parking lot” was lot bigger than I had previously imagined because the end of it ran off into a sort of half-hidden junkyard, not unlike a few I visited back in the late seventies when I was scavenging parts for my ’71 Maverick.
Well, that wasn’t too intimidating. Surely, my car wasn’t so old that it wouldn’t stand out amongst all those junkers.
“I’ve been trying…to understand why…can’t I be your only man…”
So I set off to track down my car. The music had gotten really loud and I started wishing it was a little softer, because then it wouldn’t sound like it was coming from all directions and once and it would be a lot easier to locate my car via the CD player.
I kept thinking about that a lot as I searched fruitlessly through the ever-expanding junk yard, which turned out to have a lot more than cars in it, but nothing resembling my car.
Before I got too involved, I went back up and fetched Pony Tail, who professed bewilderment in the snatches of conversation we were able to exchange over the volume of the music–“The woman’s got soul and everybody knows”–which was now so loud we could hardly hear each other.
Got to be here, he kept saying, as he led me through a maze of ever more industrialized wastelands, which began turning from junk yards into chop shops. Not chop shops for cars so much as spaceships. Spare parts anyway.
I kept thinking, Jesus, if the music just wasn’t so loud, we could at least figure out if we’re going in the right direction.
“I’m trying hard to forget, that you been cheatin'” was making my ears bleed!
Pony Tail finally ran off with some dudes who were playing football with a small, metallic spare spaceship part that developed a second skin while it was being thrown. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of the second skin but it was clear Pony Tail’s new friends didn’t want me to play and were starting to kind of sneer at me in that “We’ll at least we ain’t lost” manner that you sometimes find in hillbilly places when you are looking for your car in a junkyard where you clearly don’t belong.
I did some calculating and managed to find a path back to the parking lot. I had to step across a pile of dry manure and wedge myself between a wire fence and a concrete wall, but the roaming band of rough boys who were patrolling the outskirts of the more conventional open field approach gave me the proper incentive and I soon found myself back in my room, which had now been taken over by a group of middle-aged cleaning ladies who called me “Hon” and swore they hadn’t seen my car either.
I asked if I should maybe call the law. They gave me a very sad look that said I definitely wasn’t from around there and fully qualified as a certifiable Poor Thing.
I could still hear the music, but it wasn’t as loud.
“I can’t satisfy, your love…”
I could almost hear myself think again.
Well, whatever happens, I thought when I was back in the parking lot, still wondering if it would be worth tackling the junk yard again, “I’m gonna need to know the name of this place.”
Hey, my car had to be there somewhere. I mean, “We’re a Winner” was starting to pound.
I walked around the other side of the office and finally found the motel sign.
Ladiez41NightOnly it read.
Just then I looked up and saw an Alabama Sheriff, complete with broad-brimmed hat and mirror shades, approaching with the clear intention of making polite inquiries into my status in his town.
He was just about to speak, when it hit me.
Oh, Thank God, I thought. This has GOT to be a dream!
And when I woke myself up, this was playing in my headphones…
…just as it should have been if I’d drifted off to sleep with The Anthology playing half an hour earlier.
Look, this used to happen to me about three times a week. These days, it takes sixty loose bowel movements in seventy-two hours to make me dream this way.
I call that progress.
And I note that the music had kept me sane through it all. So it was kind of a metaphor for my entire life.
“I’ve Been Trying” was recorded for the Impressions’ 1964 LP Keep On Pushing. Passed over for single release at the time, it was eventually relegated, the following spring, to the B-Side of the second single from the group’s next LP, which was only “People Get Ready.”
In 1985, around the height of my ad-copy writing career, I was in the office late one day shooting the breeze with another employee who was in a local rock band and the boss, who liked to keep MTV on 24/7. The video for Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart’s (pretty good) version of “People Get Ready” came on and, without going into gory detail, I found myself in an argument about the song’s origin. They insisted it was “this old gospel song.” I insisted, gently but firmly, that Curtis Mayfield (who they knew as “the Superfly guy?”) had written it in the mid-sixties. There being no internet in those days (it really is good for some things folks), the argument remained unsettled. They concluded I was delusional. I concluded, yet again, that facts are only as authoritative as their source.
I wasn’t deemed reliable.
These days, I think a whole lot more people know the origin of “People Get Ready,” thanks to it being consistently rated in the top hundred/fifty/ten/whatever in various “best ever” polls covering the entire history of song.
But “People Get Ready” is not “better” than “I’ve Been Trying.” You can’t beat perfection. And, in its own heartbreaking way, the little album track relegated to a B-side is just as profound, just as inspired, just as socio-political.and finally, just as fine an example of Black America singing to itself and the world simultaneously, part celebration, part mournful cry.
The sixties were truly the best of times and the worst of times.
This is the part we should have held on to. Forever.
Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):
My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)
My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)
My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)
My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)
My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)
I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.
But have no fear. You can file all that away.
You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.
Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).
Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.
But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.
To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.
And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.
It helps if you sold a lot of records.
Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.
So there’s the criteria.
Only two people ever met every standard for me.
Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:
Al Green or Patty Loveless.
Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?
I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.
For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.
Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.
Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).
As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.
As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.
After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.
Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…
bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).
Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).
Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.
Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.
Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.
Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…
Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…
and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…
(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).
Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.
Each walked down.
In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter
In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.
Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.
Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.
Neither has a true inheritor.
Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.
The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).
There are no weak tracks in either catalog.
One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.
It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.
And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…
For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.
And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.
No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.
They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.
But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.
I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?
Who really knows?
We all have our opinions.
You can probably guess mine.
What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.
And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.
You can hear it coming, happening, landing….
In neither instance was the case made with words.
Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.
The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.
But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.
It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.
They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.
They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.
I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:
I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).
It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.
“Sing for us!” it said.
Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.
Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.
I don’t know if it ever really happened.
But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.
They sang for us.
Choose between them?
Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.
First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.
With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.
So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):
The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.
That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.
Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)
If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.
As for a favorite?
Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.
You just have to think of a little test.
Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?
You, Carl. Only you.
I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.
[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]
At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”
When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.
So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.
I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.
So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…
or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…
But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…
or completely obscure as this…
And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.
That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.
But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.
Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.
But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.
Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.
Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?
Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.
Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.
It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.
That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).
Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.
This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.
Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.
I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.
The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.
Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.
The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal
The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.
The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.
The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.
The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.
They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.
No big deal.
We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.
Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.
In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.
Or flip through piles of used record bins.
Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth the wait.
If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:
And then take you on a journey from this:
Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.
Take the mystery out of the thing.
Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.
But it’s not entirely a good thing either.
Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.
And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield, Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.
In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:
But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.
I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.