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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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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

One of pop music’s most unique and amazing properties is its ability to wrap the most heartbreaking lyrics in a bubbly, effervescent melody.

Think about it for a moment. While there are shades and degrees to consider, and this is obviously a simplification, because other types of art usually inhabit only one medium, i.e. words or images, a sad poem or a sad painting typically going to be predominately sad. I’m not saying music is the only art form to convey multiple emotions at once; that’s a ludicrous assumption. But it seems pop music does this a lot easier than most.

Few songs handle the light/dark juxtaposition as effortlessly as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1970 smash “The Tears of a Clown.” The song started out as an instrumental Stevie Wonder wrote with his producer Hank Crosby. Unsure what to do with what Wonder knew was a great track, he brought it to the Motown Christmas party in 1966 to see if Robinson had any ideas. Robinson said hear head a circus in the melody and wrote the lyrics. The finished track appeared as the final song on the Miracles 1967 release “Make It Happen.”

For three years the song lay hidden as a deep cut, ignored by both the label and the band. In 1969, Robinson announced he was tired of touring and being separated from his family. By leaving the Miracles, Robinson reasoned, he could spend more time in Detroit with his family and focus on his role as Motown’s vice president. From Robinson’s perspective, it was a sound plan. The trouble was, the Miracles were one of Motown’s biggest act in Europe and the band had delivered only one Top 10 hit over the last two years. Desperate for new material, Hitsville UK scoured the vaults and back releases and stumbled upon the long-forgotten “The Tears of a Clown.” After giving the song a new mix it was released as a single in February, 1970. The song shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fortunately for music fans everywhere, the song’s success made Robinson reconsider his decision to leave the Miracles. Motown re-released “Make It Happen” with a modified tracklisting as “Tears of a Clown” – even the cover art stayed the same – and Robinson stayed in the Miracles until 1973.

Thematically, “The Tears of a Clown” mirrors the Miracles’ 1965 hit “The Tracks of My Tears.” Both songs deal with a heartbroken lover masking his/her pain in public. The subject of both songs craves the estranged, but it too proud to share those feelings in all but the darkest, quietest places. Not happy stuff. But while it was impossible to escape the anguish of “The Tracks of My Tears,” listeners could be possibly forgiven for thinking “The Tears of Clown” was little more than a happy romp on the calliope. Wonder and Cosby’s upbeat melody is a perfect antonym for Robinson’s lyrics. One moment poignantly cuts at the heart of the song, however. The arrangement briefly pauses while Robinson confesses “when there’s no one around.” In those tender seconds, his soul is laid bare.

“The Tears of a Clown” was the Miracles biggest hit while Robinson was in the group. Unsurprisingly, several other bands wanted a taste of this success. “Clown” has been widely covered over the past 40 years. The English Beat delivered one of the best interpretations with their 1979 ska adaptation of the song. At the other end of the spectrum are the version cut by LaToya Jackson for her 1995 Motown covers album, and Enuff Z’Nuff’s hair metal reading. Somewhere in the middle lie Phil Collin’s version, included on his “Testify” album, and Petula Clark’s 2000 reading. Early ‘90s Swedish pop duo Roxette also worked the “Clown” melody into their hit “Spending My Time.”

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The Spinners – “It’s A Shame,” Pop #14, R&B #4

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Spinners had been absent from the charts for five years when “It’s A Shame” came out in June, 1970. In fact, the Detroit quintet had only two hits in their 10-year history up till that point.

The group came to Motown when Berry Gordy hired Harvey Fuqua and bought his Tri-Phi label. Fuqua was an essential part of Motown’s artist development, nurturing a young Marvin Gaye and singing Tammi Terrell.

By 1970, the Spinners were considered collateral damage from the Tri-Phi takeover, serving mostly as road managers and chaperones for more successful groups. Their hunger for a hit was a natural match for another Motown artist’s desire to spread his wings.

When Gaye wanted to show his independence, he wrote and produced two hits for the Originals. Now Stevie Wonder looked at the Spinners and wanted to do the same.

“It’s a Shame” was written and produced by the same team responsible for Wonder’s most recent hit “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.” Wonder’s musical and romantic relationship with Syreeta Wright continued to blossom and Lee Garrett once again contributed to the composition.

The song opens with a hypnotic guitar hook, but it’s the Spinners’ harmony vocals that cement the number as a soul classic. The lyrics speak of heartbreak, but the delivery is effortless and graceful.

The performance was so stellar that few artists have attempted to cover “It’s a Shame.” The song instead lives on as a sample, appearing in songs by R. Kelly, Sounds of Blackness, Lethal Bizzile and Monie Love.

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(Above: “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young. It has been a regular part of Jeff Beck’s performances for the past 30 years.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The guitarist’s guitarist, Jeff Beck has a long and varied career. Here are some of the high points from each of the genres he’s worked in.

Blues

“Ultimate Yardbirds” (2001)

The song “For Your Love” brought the Yardbirds their first big hit, but it cost them their guitarist. When Eric Clapton quit the group for abandoning their blues roots, Jeff Beck was recruited. Beck’s tenure in the Yardbirds bridged the early rave-up blues era and the later psychedelic rock phase. For a brief period, he was joined by Jimmy Page on bass and, later, second guitar. Shortly after the Beck-Page incarnation appeared in the film “Blow Up,” Beck left the band and started his solo career. He has, however, participated on several of the Yardbirds’ reunion albums.

Note: The Yardbirds’ catalog was a frustrating mess of reissues and piecemeal compilations until Rhino released the two-disc anthology “Ultimate Yardbirds.” The collection contains every A-side, key album tracks and a handful of rarities across all three eras of the band.

Hard rock

“Truth” (1968), “Beck-Ola” (1969)

As a nonvocalist, Beck has always had to hunt for a singer. When assembling his first post-Yardbirds project, he nabbed a little-known English R&B singer Rod “The Mod” Stewart. He also recruited Ronnie Wood to play bass. The trio — joined by a rotating cast of drummers — made two albums together before Stewart and Wood left to join the Faces. Both records have a similar feel to the heavy blues/rock Beck’s former bandmate Jimmy Page was making with Led Zeppelin.

Progressive rock

“Beck Bogert Appice,” “Live in Japan” (both 1973)

After the demise of the Jeff Beck Group’s second lineup, Beck teamed up with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge, drummer Carmen Appice and bass player Tim Bogert. While the studio album was a typical slab of power trio hard rock, the band expanded its template on the live album, stretching several songs to the 10-minute mark. Both albums contain Beck’s version of “Superstition,” the song Stevie Wonder wrote with Beck in mind, before Wonder’s manager persuaded him to keep it for himself.

Jazz/fusion

“Blow by Blow” (1975), “Wired” (1976)

Beck teamed with producer George Martin for his first all-instrumental solo projects. Asthetically, the albums fit comfortably alongside Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “Blow by Blow” contains two Stevie Wonder covers and a version of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman.” “Wired” contains some outtakes from the “Blow by Blow” sessions and a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that has become a concert staple. The drummer on “Wired,” Narada Michael Walden, is in Beck’s current touring band.

Pop

“Flash” (1985)

After a five-year recess, Beck returned with Nile Rodgers of Chic. “Flash” was Beck’s bid for mainstream credibility and featured eight singers across its 11 tracks. The album won a Grammy and reunited Beck with Stewart on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

Rockabilly

“Crazy Legs” (1993)

The guitar sound on “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” and other early Gene Vincent singles had a big effect on Beck as a teenager. In the early ’90s he paired with the Big Town Playboys to pay tribute to Cliff Gallup, Vincent’s guitar player.

Techno

“Who Else!” (1999), “You Had It Coming” (2001)

Longtime fans were surprised when Beck embraced the samples and looping techniques made popular by the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twins. “You Had It Coming” finds Beck sparring with guitarist Jennifer Batten and features an update of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling and Tumbling” with Imogen Heap on vocals.

Guest Appearances

Jeff Beck has popped up in some unlikely places over the years. Here are some of his most noteworthy performances on others’ albums.

  • Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” on the song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”
  • Tina Turner – “Private Dancer” on the song “Private Dancer”
  • Mick Jagger – “She’s the Boss” and “Primitive Cool”
  • Roger Waters – “Amused to Death”
  • Jon Bon Jovi – “Blaze of Glory – Young Guns II” soundtrack
  • Hans Zimmer – “Days of Thunder” soundtrack
  • Buddy Guy – “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” on the song “Mustang Sally”
  • The Pretenders – “Viva el Amor!” on the song “Legalise Me”
  • Toots and the Maytals – “True Love” on the song “54-46 Was My Number”
  • Cyndi Lauper – “The Body Acoustic” on the song “Above the Clouds”
  • Morrissey – “Years of Refusal” on the song “Black Cloud”

Keep Reading:

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

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Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Pop # 3, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Little Stevie Wonder hadn’t been little in a while, but “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was the first single clearly made by a grown man. Released in June, 1970, it was the first single Wonder produced on his own, and his first collaboration with Syreeta Wright, who would become his wife.

The Wright-Wonder marriage didn’t last long, but their musical collaboration lives on. Wonder helped write and produce much of the material on Wright’s first solo albums (including the lost Motown classic “Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta Wright”), and the two collaborated on songs that appeared on “Where I’m Coming From,” “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” This pivotal run of albums transformed Wonder as both an artist and a musician, setting up his staggering run of success later in the decade.

Signed to Motown in 1963, Wonder was starting to get bored with Hitsville at the dawn of the ‘70s. He was exploring different musical styles and arrangements and trying to broaden his sound. One day Wonder gave a tape of an instrumental he was working on to Lee Garrett, a frequent collaborator. Garrett shared the tape with Wright and the two began brainstorming ideas. The title, however, came from Wonder’s mom Lula, who exclaimed the phrase after hearing a rough version of the track.

“Signed” was recorded with the Funk Brothers, but had a strong Southern soul groove. Although many Hitsville staffers were reluctant to release a number so far removed from the Motown sound, Wonder prevailed and the song spent six weeks at the top of the R&B charts. “Signed” also earned Wonder his first Grammy nomination, which he ultimate lost to Stax artist Clarence Carter for the song “Patches.”

Elton John was the first musician to cover “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The pre-fame pianist cut the song under his birth name, Reg Dwight, for a discount copy band compilation. James Brown’s right-hand man Bobby Byrd released his version as a single a few years later. In 1977, Peter Frampton combined elements of “Signed” and Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” on his follow up to “Frampton Comes Alive.”

In 2003, Michael McDonald released his version on his Motown covers collection. Later that year, Wonder and Angie Stone appeared with the British boy band Blue on their cover, which hit No. 11 on the British charts. Most recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama played the song at the end of his 2008 campaign events.

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(Above: The Original Wailers perform Bob Marley’s classic “No Woman No Cry,” in 2008.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Junior Marvin’s two musical heroes growing up: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder.

And in a twist he couldn’t have dreamed of back then, both Marley and Wonder made competing offers for his services. It was Valentine’s Day, 1977.

Marvin had met Marley through Island Records president Chris Blackwell, who knew of Marvin’s work with Traffic in England. Wonder, meanwhile, saw Marvin play in the States with T-Bone Walker, Ike and Tina Turner and Billy Preston.

“I mean, how can you choose?” Marvin said. “Just getting a call from either of these guys was a dream come true, and I got calls from both on the same day.”

He sought the advice of friends and family and other musicians, he said.

“They said I had to go with the man who shared my heritage. I’m Jamaican, so I chose Bob Marley.”

Junior Marvin, left, with Bob Marley.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Marley and the Wailers were getting ready to record “Exodus.” Marvin’s distinctive guitar work was all over future classics “Jamming,” “One Love,” “Wait in Vain” and “Three Little Birds.” In 1999, Time magazine declared “Exodus” the album of the century.

“When Time wrote that, it was probably the proudest moment of my career,” Marvin said. “I am proud of that album. We all worked so hard on it. It was an honor to be selected over Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”

In 1978, the Wailers produced the album “Kaya” and the hit “Is This Love.” The following year Marvin played on “Survival,” which united him with Al Anderson. Anderson, who had delivered the timeless guitar solo on Marley’s early hit “No Woman No Cry,” had left the Wailers in 1976 to work with Peter Tosh.

“I met Al while I was playing with T-Bone. He was working with Mary Young and playing on Island sessions at the time,” Marvin said. “One night I had a dream I would have the opportunity to play in a group with Al.”

Both Anderson and Marvin played with Marley until his death in 1981. Shortly after Marley died, they made a pact to continue performing as the Wailers.

“We spent time with Bob in Germany while he was ill,” Marvin said. “He asked us to keep the band together after he was gone. He made us promise to keep the standard of music high, but to create our own songs as well.”

Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers released three studio albums and three live efforts after Marley’s death. In 2008, the group collaborated with Kenny Chesney on a No. 1 country hit, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”

“That was a lot of fun,” Marvin said. “He was real down-to-earth. He was interested in our history and was even talking about the possibility doing a reggae album.”

Chesney shot the video for “Heaven” in Jamaica with the Wailers. The band appeared happy on tape, but trouble was brewing. Before the end of the year, Marvin and Anderson left the band.

“We looked up to Family Man as our leader, but when his girlfriend took over it became a John and Yoko kind of thing,” Marvin said. “It was like the other band members didn’t count. There were no rehearsals, and we were not represented financially.”

The guitarists felt the musical standards weren’t living up to their promise to Marley, so they struck out on their own as the Original Wailers. Despite boasting two lead guitarists, the division of labor in the Original Wailers is relatively simple. Because they overlapped on only a few albums, each man plays lead on the material where he originally appeared. As a lead singer before his stint in the Wailers, Marvin handles the vocals.

“Whenever we play, we explain the two Wailers to people,” Marvin said. “I think there’s room for all of us to coexist.”

Original Wailers shows, Marvin said, are about half Marley classics and half new material. This summer he hopes the Original Wailers will release their first album, “Justice.”

“We just got off a five-week European tour, and the reaction to the classics and the new songs was pretty much the same,” Marvin said. “Obviously more people were able to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ but they were dancing and enjoying the new songs as well. We were thrilled to see that.”

Marvin said he feels Marley’s spirit in all the music he creates and has no regrets about choosing Marley over Wonder back in 1977. Besides, he got his chance to play with Stevie Wonder.

“I have a photo of me standing between Stevie and Bob singing ‘jamming in the name of the Lord,’ ” Marvin said. “It’s from when we played the first black music convention in Philadelphia for (Philly soul songwriters and producers Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff. It was a proud moment to be standing on the same stage as those two men at the same time.”

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

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(Above: Modest Mouse’s concert at the Uptown Theater in March deserves an honorable mention.)

By Joel Francis

Stevie Wonder, Starlight Theater, June 27

One day after the shocking death of Michael Jackson, Motown legend Stevie Wonder took the stage before a packed Starlight Theater to both grieve and celebrate his old friend. Wonder’s songbook and the scarcity of his performances – he last played Kansas City in 1986 – already guaranteed a special evening. The timing made it historic. Keep reading….

Bela Fleck, Uptown Theater, April 2

Banjo legend Bela Fleck ditched his band the Flecktones for a half dozen African musicians he encountered on his musical adventure across the continent. The three-hour showcase not only exposed the audience to artists they likely wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience, but brought the performers to the nooks and crannies of America. Keep reading ….

Sonny Rollins, Walton Arts Center (Fayetteville, Ark.), April 16

Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins marked his first performance in the state of Arkansas by reminiscing about radio host Bob Burns, aka the Arkansas Traveler and crowing about his idol, native son Louis Jordan. In between stories, Rollins and his four-piece band made transcendence standard with extended performances of chestnuts like “In A Sentimental Mood” and newer material. Keep reading ….

Leonard Cohen, Midland Theater, Nov. 9

Leonard Cohen knew that most of his biggest fans had never seen him in concert and that this tour would be their only chance to experience him in person. Accordingly, Cohen, 75, generously packed his three-hour concert with all his big numbers – “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Everybody Knows,” and about two dozen more – some album cuts and one new song.

Helping Cohen through this immaculate musical buffet was an impeccable six-piece band. Javier Mas’ performance on bandurria and 12-string acoustic guitar frequently stole the spotlight. His playing added new shades and textures to the songs and his solos were always breathtaking. Reed man Dino Soldo was also impressive on clarinet, sax, harmonica and other wind instruments. Three backing vocalists, including Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, helped smooth the rough patches in Cohen’s gravely baritone.

The adoring, sold-out crowd marinated in every moment, cheering at choice lines and raining ovations on the surprisingly spry singer as he skipped and hopped joyously around the stage. Cohen may have been forced back on the road for financial reasons, but both he and his audience delighted in celebration.

Sly and Robbie, Folly Theater, June 6
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Beaumont Club, August 30

This summer was a great time to be a reggae fan in Kansas City. Jamaican visitors included two biological sons of Bob Marley, and several metaphorical ones, including Toots and the Maytals, the reconstituted Wailers and Matisyahu. Pioneers Sly and Robbie and Lee “Scratch” Perry were the season’s bookends.

Sly and Robbie, veterans of literally hundreds of reggae recordings, kicked off the unofficial summer of reggae with nearly two hours of rumbling riddims at the Folly Theater. Nearly three months later, the eccentric and prolific producer “Scratch” Perry kept a small Beaumont Club crowd waiting for hours, before finally appearing with a psychotropic set of Bob Marley numbers he produced and originals like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Pum Pum.”

Keep reading:

-          Sly and Robbie
-          Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jimmy Cobb, Gem Theater, October 17

As the last living performer from Miles Davis’ landmark jazz recording, Jimmy Cobb left a crowded Gem Theater crowd feeling anything but kind of blue. The drummer and his five-piece So What Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue” by playing all of its numbers, but treating the lauded original recordings more like an outline than a blueprint. When Cobb finally unleashed a drum solo more than an hour into the set, he was rewarded with the standing ovation he deserved. Keep reading ….

Pogues, Midland Theater, October 25

It took the renowned Irish acoustic punk band nearly three decades to reach Kansas City, and the groups notorious singer Shane McGowan wasn’t going to vacate the stage quickly. Alone onstage, the dying chords of “Fiesta” still ringing out, McGowan delivered a very inebriated, off-key version of “Kansas City.” A drink in each hand and cigarette dangling from his mouth, McGowan finally shuffled off to whoops and cheers.

The rest of the Pogues, recently reunited and sober (with one exception), have learned to live with these incidents. It’s probably safe to say a good portion of the crowd showed up because of them. Both the morbidly and musically curious had plenty of cause to be glad. After his only face plant of the evening, McGowan replied with aplomb “That’s why they call me Mr. Trips.” Overall, though, he was in good enough shape to deliver great versions of “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “Dirty Old Town” and “Bottle of Smoke.”

Despite suffering from a muddy mix, the rest of the band held up their end of the bargain, especially accordion player James Fearnley who ran and slid around the stage like Bruce Springsteen at the Super Bowl and tin whistle-ist Spider Stacy’s percussive beating of his head with a cookie sheet during “Fiesta.” The McGowan songbook was augmented by the traditional Irish numbers “Irish Rover” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and late-Pogues number “Tuesday Morning.” There were a few stones left unturned – “Fairytale of New York” was missed – but more than enough good moments to justify the wait.

Alice Cooper, Ameristar Casino, August 8

Alice Cooper’s theatrics aren’t as shocking as they were 30 years ago. What is shocking is how captivating and entertaining his stage show remains. Cooper’s adventures with the noose, guillotine, iron maiden, hypodermic needle, wheelchair, guns and swords mesmerized a fist-pumping, sold-out audience who sang along to every syllable of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and nearly every other song in the set. Keep reading ….

Raphael Saadiq, Voodoo Lounge, March 13

While not officially tied to the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Motown, Raphael Saadiq’s 75-minute concert in front of a pitifully small crowd at the Voodoo Lounge was an homage to old-school soul, complete with David Ruffin’s horned glasses, tight suits and choreographed dances. The best aspect, though, was that all the music was new and original material written by the former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman, much of it drawn from his incredible album “The Way I See It.” Keep reading …

Keep Reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2008

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sesamestreet220

As “Sesame Street” celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, The Daily Record examines five of the show’s greatest musical moments.

Johnny Cash – “Nasty Dan”

Twenty years after “Cry Cry Cry” appeared in jukeboxes, Johnny Cash was singing with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. “Nasty Dan” appears on the classic 1975 record “The Johnny Cash Children’s Album,” but Oscar is the perfect foil for the number. Cash enjoyed his fifth season spin on the Street so much, he returned to Jim Henson’s world of Muppets. In 1980, Cash hosted an episode of The Muppet Show. Cash was also the inspiration behind the 1990s Sesame Street character Ronnie Trash, who sang about the environment in Cash’s classic boom-chicka style.

The Fugees “Just Happy To Be Me”

The Fugees immortal sophomore album “The Score” was one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s, but it wasn’t exactly kid-friendly material. Somehow, though, the divisive Elmo took a shine to the group and invited the trio to appear in his 1998 TV special. Although “Ready or Not” could have been adapted to a song about playing hide-and-seek, the Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean opted to cover a newer song in the Sesame Street canon, “Just Happy To Be Me.” Jean has returned to the Street several times since, but Hill and Michel are perpetually M.I.A. This once prompted Snuffleupagus to hollar “Where Fugees at?”

Stevie Wonder – “1,2,3 Sesame Street

Stevie Wonder between albums and at arguably at the peak of his career when he appeared on the Sesame Street in 1973. In a rare Sesame Street-Soul Train crossover moment, Wonder and his full band performed his recent hit “Superstition.” He then returned with the original number “1,2,3 Sesame Street,” starting a new talk box fad at kindergarteners across the country.

Itzhak Pearlman – Easy and Hard

This isn’t as much a song as a lesson with the greatest classical violinist of his generation. Itzhak Pearlman was no stranger to Sesame Street when he appeared in this 1981 clip. Polio is all but forgotten today, but the message on disabilities and talent still rings true.

Cab Calloway – “Mr. Hi De Ho Man”

Cab Calloway earned the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man” after his signature song, “Minnie the Moocher” became a hit in 1931. Half a century later, Calloway converted his handle to a greeting and performed on Sesame Street with the perpetually contradictive Two-Headed Monster. Calloway’s guest spot occurred during a late career resurgence. After spending almost a decade as a has-been, Calloway was back in the spotlight, thanks to his role in “The Blues Brothers” film. The movie was directed and co-written by John Landis, who was good friends with Muppeteer Frank Oz. Oz, who voiced Grover, Bert and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Yoda, appears as the guard who returns Joliet Jake’s belongings at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers.”

Ray Charles – “The Alphabet”

This bonus clip is from Ray Charles’ second stop on the Street in 1977. Although he’s just singing the alphabet, there are few artists who could make 26 letters swing so hard.

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for once
Stevie Wonder – “For Once in my Life,” Pop # 2, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

“For Once in my Life” was less than two years old, but already practically a staple by the time Stevie Wonder’s cover was finally released in October, 1968.

Jean DuShon recorded the original version for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet in 1966. Although the label failed to promote the single, it still managed to reach the ears of Berry Gordy. He was not pleased to learn that Motown composer Ron Miller had written the number for a performer outside of the Hitsville stable. Gordy demanded Miller let a Motown artist record the number and he promptly gave it to Barbara McNair for her 1966 album “Here I Am.” Best known as an actress who appeared on “Mission: Impossible,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Dr. Kildare,” McNair’s version sank without a trace.

Gordy wasn’t done with the song, though. In 1967 he gave it to the Temptations as a showcase for baritone Paul Williams. Their downbeat interpretation was one of the highlights of a 1968 television special with the Supremes.

Tony Bennett released his version of “For Once in My Life” the same time the Temptations were staking claim to the tune. Bennett’s reading was a crossover hit, lodging in the Top 10 of the Easy Listening chart and peaking at 91 on the pop chart. The title song of his 1967 album, it became one of the crooner’s signature numbers.

So the public was more than familiar with “For Once in My Life” by the time Wonder’s version hit the streets. Arriving a year after Bennett’s version peaked, Wonder’s interpretation became the most successful and definitive reading of the song. Like many great songs, however, this one almost didn’t get released.

Wonder recorded his vision of “For Once in My Life” the same summer the Temptations cut the song. Wonder’s upbeat arrangement stood in sharp contrast to the Temptations’ soulful balladry, and Gordy preferred the Tempts’ reading. After a year of pleading and cajoling, the head of Motown’s Quality Control department finally talked Gordy into allowing Wonder’s version to be released as a single. The result, of course, was a No. 2 single (held out of the top spot by Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”) that became the title track of Wonder’s tenth album.

Sonically, it’s hard to believe this song hails from 1968. The production and arrangement sounds like a throwback from the Holland-Dozier-Holland heydays of 1966. The big strings and Wonder’s vocals are front and center in the mix with the drums pushing the entire arrangement. The strings and horn tiptoe just shy of being bombastic, and a great piano line snakes along the bottom of the mix. Wonder’s harmonica makes the most of its verse-long solo, nimbly improvising on the melody like a jazz horn. The backing vocals are a little corny, but they are redeemed by Wonder’s best vocal performance to date. Wonder wasn’t yet 18 when he recorded this song, but there is a confidence in his delivery and phrasing that shows how much he’d grow since “Uptight” was released the summer before.

Wonder had far from the final word on the song. Gordy’s old boss Jackie Wilson released a cover that tried to split the difference between the Bennett and Wonder arrangements as a single to compete with Wonder. His version stalled at No. 70 on the cart. Ella Fitzgerald performed the song in concert throughout the summer of 1968 with an arrangement based on Bennett’s version. The following year, Frank Sinatra included his reading on the “My Way” album. In the twilight of his career, Sinatra revisited the song with Gladys Knight and Wonder for the 1994 “Duets II” album. Wonder returned to the song a dozen years later, sharing vocal duties with Bennett for Bennett’s “Duets: An American Classic” recording.

An enduring classic, “For Once in My Life” was covered by rocksteady singer Slim Smith in1969, recorded by James Brown in 1970 and translated into German by Stefan Gwildis in 2005. The song has also popped up on “Oprah,” “American Idol” and countless other television shows and films.

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syreeta
Rita Wright – “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You,” did not chart

By Joel Francis

Rita Wright is best known by her 1970s stage name, Syreeta. Before she collaborated with – and briefly married – Stevie Wonder, and scored a handful of Adult Contemporary hits with Billy Preston, Wright was a Pittsburgh transplant working as a secretary for Motown. Wright managed to catch the ear of Brian Holland, who signed her to the label. Holland collaborated with Ashford and Simpson – the songwriting team ironically brought in to replace the defected Holland, his brother Brian and their partner Lamont Dozier – on her 1968 debut, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel For You.”

The song opens with a jarringly dissonant horn line before settling upon Wright’s soft voice. Although her performance is strong, the arrangement betrays the track’s origin as an abandoned Diana Ross and the Supremes cut. Although Ross eventually cut the song as a solo track for her 1971 album “Surrender,” Wright’s version could easily be confused for a lost Supremes track.

Although “I Can’t Give Back” didn’t chart, Wright had a successful recording career. She co-wrote “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” with Wonder and the Spinners’ hit “It’s A Shame.” Her first two LPs, 1972’s “Syreeta” and 1974’s “Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta” are hidden soul gems.

Ross’ version of “I Can’t Give Back” came in the middle of a sort of renaissance for the number. Dusty Springfield covered it in 1970 during the sessions to her follow up to “Dusty In Memphis,” the Philly soul masterpiece “A Brand New Me.” The final lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, featuring vocalist Bobby Tench, put their stamp on the song in 1972.

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