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(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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(Above: Modest Mouse perform “Dashboard” at the previous stop in Kansas City, at the Uptown Theater in March, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Early in his first visit to Crossroads, Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock was quick to point out the venue’s most distinctive feature. After the second song, he told the sold-out crowd the band had a “super awesome” gift for everyone: they each got to take home a wood chip.

The six members of the indie rock band were so excited about their present they flubbed the first verse of the next song “We’ve Got Everything.” After taking a brief moment to regroup they returned to the number with increased fervor. It was the only misstep of the two-hour set that found the band growing stronger with each number.

The set opened with slow, droning intro to “Gravity Rides Everything,” which gave way to a gentle wash of acoustic guitar. With three guitarists and two drummers, Modest Mouse’s songs were never lacking in texture. Frequently the band went one step further, substituting banjo, violin and keyboards. During “Gravity,” Brock held his acoustic guitar up to the speakers a la Pete Townshend for a nice burst of feedback. The combination of two trumpets and Brock’s banjo on “King Rat” and “Devil’s Workday” created a kind of demented Dixieland.

While two of the band’s biggest songs – “Float On” and “Florida” – were absent, they weren’t missed. The opening bars of nearly every number were greeted with huge cheers of recognition, regardless if it was a single like “Dashboard” or album cut like “Paper Thin Walls.” The 18-song setlist was democratically split between the band’s three most recent albums, with a few added nuggets. There was very little chatter during songs in the crowd or between them onstage; the music captured everyone’s attention.

“Whale Song” featured a lengthy opening and Brock’s signature guitar style. Brock has a way of bending notes while hitting them with the whammy bar that makes his guitar sound like a drunken Jew’s harp. Although touring guitarist Jim Fairchild, formerly of Granddaddy, shared the stage, Brock chose to do most of the heavy lifting. After “Whale,” each song seemed to build on the intensity of the previous performance. By “Devil’s Workday,” which featured another great stinging solo from Brock, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” the band was cranking at 11.

That intensity made “Fire It Up” seem even more low-key, with the entire band riding Eric Judy’s loping bass line. “Blame it on the Tetons” had a gentle, folksy feel supported by Tom Peloso’s violin. New song “Here’s To Now” also featured Peloso’s fiddle, which had everyone clapping along to the two-step rhythm.

The biggest contrast of the night, however, may have been the response to “Parting of the Sensory.” Brock could never be mistaken for an optimist, but the audience danced and sang along to the nihilistic refrain of “someday you will die and somehow something’s going to steal your coffin” like it was the Jackson 5. It would have been the perfect ending, but the band had one more treat in “Black Cadillacs.” Even without the souvenir wood chip, it wasn’t a night anyone will soon forget.

Setlist: Gravity Rides Everything; The View; We’ve Got Everything; King Rat; Here It Comes; Fire It Up; Whale Song; Paper Thin Walls; Here’s to Now (new song); Baby Blue Sedan; Dashboard; Satin in a Coffin; Devil’s Workday; Tiny Cities Made of Ashes; Encore: Blame It On the Tetons; Third Planet; Parting of the Sensory; Black Cadillacs.

Keep reading:

Review: Modest Mouse (2009)

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band (2007)

Review – The Black Keys

(Below: Don’t mess with Isaac Brock.)

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Jackson Five – “I’ll Be There,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

To say that the Jackson 5’s formula was successful would be a terrific understatement. Three upbeat, bubblegum hits, all penned and produced by Berry Gordy and his faceless Corporation, all No. 1 pop and R&B smashes.

Gordy’s decision to break from the formula for the group’s fourth hit was shocking. Not known as one to mess with a sure thing, Gordy dumped the Corporation and partnered with Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob Wests to craft a ballad that placed Michael Jackson directly the spotlight, and relegated his brothers to a support role.

The result was the J5’s most successful single ever, selling 4 million copies in the United States and cementing the band’s career beyond bubblegum. “I’ll Be There” was also the group’s last No. 1 hit; three more singles ceilinged at No. 2.

Only 12 years old at the time, Jackson dumps more emotion into his delivery than many singers twice his age possess. His clarion call to give love another chance is graceful and penetrating. Gordy positioned Diana Ross as the J5’s mentor – her influence shines in Jackson’s delivery, both in phrasing and tone.

“I’ll Be There” was covered by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz as a duet in 1992. The single was her sixth No. 1 hit, but the less said about her treacly reading the better. More interestingly, it appeared on the fourth album by Southern California punk rockers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in 2003, who frequently recorded ironic covers. “I’ll Be There” graced two other Motown releases. The Temptations recorded a version for their 2006 album “Reflections” and sister La Toya Jackson cut it for her 1995 covers album. Many artists, including Carey, the New Kids on the Block, Jaime Foxx and Ne-Yo and Green Day performed “I’ll Be There” in tribute to Jackson after his death on June 25, 2009.

Michael Jackson performed “I’ll Be There” on all of his solo tours, frequently getting emotional and breaking down mid-song.

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Jackson 5 – “The Love You Save,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The process behind the J5’s two previous singles was too successful and irresistible not to try again. And for the third time, the resulting song stuck at the top of the chart.

The product of a Berry Gordy and the Corporation, “The Love You Save” bears more than a passing resemblance to “ABC” and “I Want You Back.” Don’t fall into the trap of writing off the song as a carbon copy, though. “The Love You Save” has a more complex arrangement – it deviates from AABA structure – and greatly benefits from Jermaine’s supporting vocals. Plus it’s just as infectious and fun as the first two singles.

On their tours in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Jacksons combined all three songs in one medley. It was an obvious and surefire idea. Put these three together and you’ve got 10 minutes of music guaranteed to put a smile on the most hardened face and get the most sedentary feet moving.

The lyrics in “The Love You Save” echo the warning Diana Ross delivered five years earlier on “Stop! In the Name of Love,” another Motown No. 1. Both songs open hard on the word “stop” and implore their partners to both slow and settle down. Playing these songs back to back shows how far Motown has pushed soul music. The excitement of the Holland-Dozier-Holland composition is tempered by Ross’ mannered delivery that almost turns her pleading into nagging. On the other hand, the Corporation’s number jumps out of the speakers with a kinetic energy and Michael’s charismatic vocals. The supporting string arrangement is only hint of the assembly line Motown sound that HDH developed.

Few artists have covered “The Love You Save.” More noteworthy are the songs penned by Joe Tex and the Holmes Brothers that bear the same name.

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Jackson 5 – “ABC,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Tito, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and, of course, Michael Jackson blasted to the top of the chart with their debut single, “I Want You Back.” Five months later, they duplicated the feat with their second effort, “ABC.”

Like their previous release, “ABC” was written and produced by the Corporation, the faceless entity label head Berry Gordy created in the wake of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure. Never again would Motown’s writers and producers usurp the performer’s fame. Structurally, “ABC” also resembles “I Want You Back;” the two songs share the same spirit and melody lines.

“ABC” opens with a bright burst of fuzz guitar and piano a split second before Michael wordlessly sings the equivalent of sunshine and a smile. Michael had yet to enter his teens, but his voice pops out of the speakers with remarkable authority and maturity.

Because of their ages, the Jackson 5 were branded “bubblegum” in the early years of their career. The tag isn’t completely unfair – their debut album does open with a version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”  – but the way Michael yells “Sit down girl, I think I love you!” is pure soul.

With its great bass line, the way the syncopated drumming plays off the piano line, and sprinkling of Latin percussion over the top “ABC” is pop perfection.

The song’s concept came from Corporation member Freddie Perren, a former school teacher. Perren noted the similarity between teaching and producing, namely forming a lesson play, or song idea, then having the students/musicians echo it back until attaining perfection.

“ABC” is one of Motown’s biggest song, but Gordy never saw fit to give the tune to any of his other artists. It hasn’t even been sampled that often (the less said about Ghostface Killah’s version, the better). Although the song today has been unfairly relegated to children’s compilations and oldies collections, “ABC” rocked the house parties of both young and old alike back in the day.

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Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

“I Want You Back” not only introduced America to the biggest post-Elvis superstar in the world. It also kicked off the unprecedented success of a group having its first four singles top the chart, and returned the mojo Motown lost with the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The Jackson 5 – Michael, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Jackie – were famously raised in Gary, Ind. by their ambitious and abusive father Joe. When his sons started showing musical aptitude, Joe Jackson saw them as his ticket out of the Gary steel mills and, after music lessons, sent them out on the chitlin circuit. Their shows caught the eye of Sam and Dave and Gladys Knight, who recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Because Gordy already had one child star with Stevie Wonder, he declined to sign them.

One year later, in 1968, the Jackson 5 were paired with Knight and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were riding their lone Motown hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” Taylor and Knight were so impressed by the J5’s performance that they videotaped an audition and send the tape to Gordy to his new home in Los Angeles. Gordy was still reluctant to sign another child act, but relented after watching the tape.

Of course Knight and Taylor received little credit for bringing the Jackson 5 to Motown. The glory went to Diana Ross, who had nothing to do with the quintet or their signing, but received top billing on their debut album, “Diana Ross presents the Jackson 5.”

The arrival of the Jackson 5 draws a sharp line between the Detroit and Los Angeles eras of Motown. Gordy had recently relocated to Los Angeles to start a film career for both himself and Ross, his lover. Although some early J5 songs were recorded at the Hitsville studio in Detroit, Gordy moved the group out to California for grooming.

Gordy copied the songwriting template of the Supreme’s successful “Love Child” to craft “I Want You Back.” He called three of his best writers – Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Alphonso Mizell – to help him retool a song originally intended for either Gladys Knight or Diana Ross as either “I Wanna Be Free” or “I Want You Back.” As on “Love Child,” Gordy billed the collective anonymously. After the defection of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Gordy did not want any more of his songwriters to become “back room superstars.” Known only as “The Corporation,” the team wrote many of the Jackson 5’s early hits.

One of the most infectiously joyous songs in the Motown catalog, “I Want You Back” has been covered several times. Nickel Creek recorded a bluegrass version in 2007, two pop girl groups – Cleopatra and the West End Girls – had international hits with their 1990s interpretations. It was recorded by indie rockers Discovery on their 2009 debut, and performed by British singer Mika, KT Tunstall and even Guns N Roses in concert.

“I Want You Back” was sampled by Kris Kross for their 1992 hit “Jump,” and Kanye West for Jay-Z’s 2001 smash “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”

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The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

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