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Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Leiber’

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

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(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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