THE BEST OF HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES (Track-By-Track)

If You Don’t Know Me By Now: The Best of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (1995)

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were already a veteran soul unit, albeit one still searching for success when they signed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1972. Success there was immediate and lasted through 1976 at which point the group signed with ABC records, left behind their incendiary lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, and, despite occasional action in the mid-reaches of the R&B chart, soon faded back into the woodwork.

This comp from the mid-nineties covers their essential work for Philly International, distills the best work of their four fine albums there, and is an essential part of any conversation about 70’s soul or the socio-political confluence I’ve dubbed The Rising.

Pendergrass stayed with Gamble and Huff and went on to a substantial solo career. Had he and Melvin not fallen out, it’s likely the group would be accorded its rightful place as a peer of the O’Jays and the Spinners. But, brief as it was, their stay with Gamble and Huff was both a cornerstone and peak of the last age when Rock and Roll America was still in the ascendancy. Coincidentally or not, their last stand marked the road to ours. This is an exemplary comp, programmed for maximum sonic, musical and social impact, chronology be damned.

Listen close.

“Cabaret” – Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Deep soul group goes Show Biz. Just to prove they can? Or to be ready in case Vegas calls? Maybe just to prove they’ve forgotten nothing.

“The Love I Lost” – Redolent of the paradox confronting Black America  coming out of the Civil Rights movement, faced with the possibility that only the laws had changed and that whether or not the rules would change might or might not be up to them–and that this moment was the last time anyone would have a chance to make it come good. Other than that, it’s just a song about lost love.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – The record that introduced Teddy Pendergrass to the American pop charts in 1973. Except for Ronnie Van Zant, he would be the last great blues singer to find a place there. Ronnie could go deep but he preferred watching from a distance, living on the sly. Teddy didn’t have any “sly” in him. He was a pleader, a beggar, a demander. It might have been histrionic, except the quality of his pleading was too pure, his timbre too rough, and the stakes, as he surely understood them, too high. Other than that, it’s just a song about the fragility of the social contract called marriage.

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Somehow, Philly International failed to release this as a single in the U.S. With the possible exception of the O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy,” a ten-minute curse on the slave trade that was hardly radio fodder, it’s probably the greatest record the label recorded that wasn’t a hit.  A few years later, Thelma Houston did a version on Motown that was both a monster hit and an answer record. Choosing between the two versions is a fool’s game. If they can be rated, it’s by this difference: in Houston’s version, her life is at stake. In the Blue Notes’ version, featuring Pendergrass’s greatest vocal until the far reaches of the vamp at the end of “Wake Up Everybody,” everything is at stake. Meaning us.

“I’m Weak For You” – Their features one of the soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus tradeoff vocals (Pendergrass always took the hard soul part and the concluding improv vamp) that became the group’s signature arrangement style. You might argue it goes on too long, but I bet the black women who heard it being sung to them would argue it didn’t go long enough.

“Everybody’s Talkin'” – Fred Neil’s standard (a big hit for Nillson in 1969) starts wearing a new face when it’s sung by a multiplicity of black voices (yes, it’s soft soul/hard soul/Greek chorus again) blending into one man with his shoulders hunched against a gray, wind-blown sky that might be hanging over a ghetto, a newly minted black suburban neighborhood or a country road in the Deep South where the car in the distance might be a ride home or a Klan patrol.

“Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” – A lovely soul ballad, a duet between Melvin and guest vocalist Sharon Paige, that offers the hope of peace without quite making it a promise, even when–or especially wnen?–Pendergrass steps in at the end. In the mid-seventies, who could do more than hope?

“Bad Luck” – Just in case anyone was getting too comfortable there for a minute. Teddy preaches some at the end…getting ready for the climb.

“Where Are All My Friends” – A sequel to the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers.” Teddy doesn’t wait this time. He starts preaching right out of the box, stalkinng from one end of the tent-revival stage to the other, the pulpit unable to contain him. Climbing…climbing…seeking?

“Wake Up Everybody” – And then, carried by his label’s greatest arrangement, he arrives at the mountaintop. And just keeps reaching…and preaching. Until, standing on the mountaintop, with his shiny, sweat-stained preacher’s suit in shreds at his feet, he falls to his knees and sings “Oh it don’t matter….what race….creed or color. Everybody….we need each other.” If we didn’t listen then, brother, we never will.

“Yesterday I Had the Blues” – Then the slow descend, back to reality. The acceptance that life’s victories will be more pedestrian than dreams. And hard-won. And perhaps, just perhaps, worth it for all that.

“Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back)” – After all that, some swagger is in order. And it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.

“I Miss You” – It’s only the last few years that I could listen to this more than every few years. Possibly the most poignant record the Rising produced. And, for once, Pendergrass, giving one of his greatest performances, isn’t the center of the show, stepping out of the spotlight halfway through and taking a back seat to Melvin’s spoken-word monologue, softly rapped out over Teddy’s agonized blues shouting (the combination capping one of Thom Bell’s greatest arrangements). Again, white critics complained about the length when what they really meant was the shattering intimacy. Again, I doubt that black women either complained or failed to understand what it was worth to be missed.

“Tell the World How I Feel About ‘Cha Baby” –Coming out of “I Miss You” this feel bright, pedestrian. Like a false promise of happiness. But then so would anything.

“Keep On Lovin’ You” – Relatively slight though it is, this closes an epic set on the right note. It would have been nice if the battle really had been won and we could get back to love songs. There’s just enough desperation, even in Teddy’s seduction voice, to make you want to start over again….not just the album but the battle. Who knows? Maybe we’ll make it come right this time.

Harold Melvin 57 (1940-1997)
Lawrence Brown 63 (1945-2008)
Teddy Pendergrass 59 (1950-2010)
Bernard Wilson 64 (1946-2010)

R.I.P. brothers.

It costs.

SIGNIFIERS (Bunny Sigler and Ralphie May, R.I.P.)

Bunny Sigler was a key player in the Philly Soul revolution of the 1970s. He made an indelible impact as a singer…

songwriter….

…producer, instrumentalist, tastemaker…and that rarest of rare things, a quality that always shone through his best music: A generous soul.

He passed away at the age of 76 on Oct. 6, something close to the last of his kind.

Heart attack.

Ralphie May had two advantages over literally all of the dubious “comedians” he leaves behind. He told the truth and he was funny.

He also died on Oct. 6., at age 45 Also of a heart attack.

Also something close to the last of his kind.

Well, at least the next plane is funnier and more soulful these days.

Here, we’ll just have to carry on with YouTube and the memories.

THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE….HALL AND OATES REACH BACK (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #83)

I’m feeling better each day but now have a killer makeup work schedule the rest of the week. Hoping for a nice long “dream sequence” post in the next day or two (for who among you does not want to read about a good old fashioned diarrhea-induced dream?) but, for now, I wanted to share this good old fashioned jam session at Daryl Hall’s house on the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers.” It’s minus the paranoia, of course, but it shows what you can do with enough talent married to enough hero worship and a penchant for getting carried away with yourself. Track proper starts around 2:04:

THE RISING….THE RICH GET RICHER….NEW YEAR’S WARNING EDITION (Third Memo)

We enter 2015 with the specter of a 2016 presidential race likely to offer a choice between….a Clinton and a Bush.

Oy vey.

Back in the hey-day of “the Rising,” when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (the Isaiah and Jeremiah of the movement) ruled the charts and warned us about the future, they wrote and/or produced a clutch of salient “political” statements. Most of the best of these (as is usually the case with such things) were records like “Backstabbers” or “Only the Strong Survive” that came disguised as something else.

Something like the O’Jays’ “Rich Get Richer”–with its famous (and admittedly un-poetic) paranoid line, “there’s only sixteen families that control the whole world…I read that in a book ya’ll”–used to make the intelligentsia roll their eyes and suggest that the boys (politely, of course, always politely) get back to the groove and leave politics and such to those sophisticated enough to know better.

H-m-m-m.

Sixteen families to control the whole world.

Always trying to get more than they give.

Jeb vs. Hilary in 2016.

Sounds like Leon and Kenny may have set the number a little high.

Happy New Year, ya’ll.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXFijzJGt-0

 

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”