The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Two): Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

BoDiddleyGunslinger

Above: Musical pioneer Bo Diddley was cruelly excluded from the “Cadillac Records” story.

By Joel Francis

With Willie Dixon feeding steady hits to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other Chess artists, the label had become a driving force of popular taste less than a decade after it was founded. While blues were the label’s backbone, the Chess brothers had a hand in nearly every facet of African-American music – from doo-wop groups like the Moonglows and Flamingos and jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis to the comedy styling of Moms Mabley and sermons by Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Starting in 1963, Chess even had its own Chicago radio station, WVON, Voice of the Negro, which is still on the air today.

Chess introduced the world to rock and roll in 1951 when it released Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Four years later, two new Chess artists helped rock and roll grow up in a hurry.

Chuck Berry was discovered by Muddy Waters while on vacation to St. Louis. Berry’s upbeat blues were spiked with country and given a teenage twist. Songs about work became songs about school; his love songs were less dark and more playful. Berry was a poet, capable of packing more syllables per stanza than any other singer. Consider the imagery and complexity in the familiar opening lines Berry’s legendary “Johnny B. Goode:” “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” Berry’s guitar was just as active as his mouth. His quick fingers brought the blues at twice the tempo and his athletic solos made him the first guitar hero.

If Chuck Berry’s souped-up songs took the blues to the teen market in the guise of rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s African rhythms gave them a beat everyone could dance to. Diddley was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss. but took the last name McDaniel from his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago as a child in 1934.  Diddley’s songs were downright primitive compared to Berry’s, but no less powerful or influential. His shave-and-a-haircut beat was the backbone for many of his own hits like “Bo Diddley,” and “Who Do You Love,” and countless imitators like Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and Bruce Sprinsteen’s “She’s the One.” Diddley produced strange sounds from homemade guitars, while Jerome Green’s maracas fueled the relentless beat. Diddley and Green’s back-and-forth on “Say Man” is one of the earliest recorded raps.

The 1960s were a boon for Chess. New stars like Etta James kept the label at the top of the charts while Chuck Berry was in jail. Rock and roll may have knocked Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from their perches at the top of the charts, but their old singles found a huge white audience in England. Teenagers who bought guitars to form skiffle bands were suddenly playing Willie Dixon’s songs and ravenous for Chicago’s blues. Dixon obliged them, organizing several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe. In return, the British Invasion bands brought Chess music back to America with them, introducing white America to the music its dark-skinned brothers and sisters had been enjoying decades. Waters, Wolf and the rest of the Chess stable were suddenly pulled from the chitlin circuit to colleges, theaters and festivals.

Chess responded to the changing marketplace in several ways. Before then, most Chess releases were 45 rpm singles. Now the brothers started packaging their hits together into LP records. Decade-old Sonny Boy Williamson tracks appeared on a “Real Folk Blues” compilation designed to appeal to the hootenanny crowd. Later, classic Waters and Wolf tunes were given psychedelic updates for the Summer of Love.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

Advertisement

Review: Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Above: Robert Randolph persuades the ladies of Albany to shake their hips.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

A casino is as unlikely a setting for church as beer employees are a congregation. Yet on Friday night, Robert Randolph and the Family Band snuck 90 minutes of gospel on an unsuspecting crowd that loved every minute of it.

The quintet opened with a jam that sounded like the Allman Brothers dropped into an AME church, and found Randolph grinning from ear to ear, smacking his gum while working the horizontal fretboard of his pedal steel guitar.

The next song up, “I Need More Love,” was propelled by a funky six-string bassline and sounded like a lost Sly and the Family Stone track. Swaying in his seat, Randolph segued perfectly into an instrumental cover of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” that kept everyone on the dance floor moving.

After the MJ workout, Randolph stood up and strapped on Telecaster for a country-flavored jam led by some call-and-response vocals by his sister Lenesha Randolph. He was quickly back behind the pedal steel, though, for a John Lee Hooker boogie that packed three dozen women from the crowd onstage and invited them to shake their hips. Everyone obliged.

There was no setlist; songs grew spontaneously out of what the group was feeling. Each note was kinetic. They band may not know their destination, but they made sure everyone had fun getting there.

A tribute to Bo Diddley gradually grew out of a groove based on –- what else? -– the Bo Diddley beat. With Randolph playing one of Diddley’s trademark square guitars, the band launched into a thunderous version of the song “Bo Diddley” that worked its way into “Who Do You Love?” Randolph was so enamored with the square axe he played it for the rest of the main set.

A surprisingly subdued journey through the Doobie Brother’s “Black Water” played up the “funky Dixieland” aspect and kept the audience involved.

Randolph has torn apart the pedal steel stereotype of making only lonesome country twang. His playing is equal parts Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stevie Wonder and his music is so infectious one could forgive audience for missing the message peppered throughout songs like “Deliver Me.” In that one Randolph sang “Should I get on my knees and pray?/I know I, I just can’t make it through another day/I got to, I got to, I got to get away/Deliver me.”

The free show was a thank you to Bud Light employees and boosters. While the Voodoo Lounge was only two-thirds full, it didn’t feel empty. The extra elbow room allowed plenty of space for dancing and the crowd used every inch.

The band left after 75 minutes, but the music didn’t stop. An offstage bass solo slowly built into a jam that found the band back in front of the crowd. The closing song of the night sounded like Led Zeppelin and echoed a thought likely ringing through most minds: “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That.”

Keep Reading:
Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Crossroads, 2009

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”

smokey

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears,” Pop #16, R&B #2

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson had little to prove in 1965. Since joining Motown four years ago, he had not only given the label its first million-selling single and its first No. 1, but written, produced or performed on scores of classic tracks. Robinson was rewarded for all his work when his name was pulled out of the Miracles and given top billing.

“The Tracks of My Tears” was one of the first singles credited to “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles,” but Robinson wasn’t resting on his laurels. His heart wrenching vocals may be topped only by Levi Stubbs’ performance on “Ask the Lonely” as the label’s most powerful performance to date. With a voice packed full of heartache and longing, Robinson pulls back the mask, revealing his naked heart to his former lover.

Exhausted after meticulously maintaining his façade for the evening, and the truth seeps out of Robinson’s character when he’s finally alone. Ah that the pain of love could be so melodic. The song starts as if out of dream, introduced by the subtle but spectacular guitar line of Marv Taplin. The Miracles’ harmony vocals are the reassurance and support that are always absent in these dead-of-night confessions. The orchestra, xylophone and drumming are all perfectly arranged and placed. Everything pauses for the syncopation of the line “My smile is my makeup I wear since my break-up with you.”

“The Tracks of My Tears” is frequently lauded as not only Robinson’s best number, but one of the greatest songs of all time. It is also the Miracles’ most-covered song. Less than two year’s after the Miracles’ hit, Johnny Rivers cut a version. Aretha Franklin’s reading from “Soul ’69” is just wonderful. Her celebrated voice is framed by a gorgeous finger picked guitar and a tough brass arrangement that accentuates without overpowering. Most recently, the song has been covered by Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello, who sometime performs it in concert as a medley with his like-minded hit “Alison.”

Although the song is nearly 45 years old, it hasn’t aged a minute.

The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse”

262-contours
The Contours – “First I Look at the Purse,” Pop #57, R&B #12

By Joel Francis

The name on the label says “The Contours,” but all four of the singers who found success with 1962’s chart-topping “Do You Love Me” were gone by the time this number came out three years later.

A novelty song penned in the vein of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s classic Coaster’s numbers, it’s hard to imagine songwriters Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rodgers presenting this number to their group, the Miracles. But since none of the Contour’s follow-up efforts had cracked the Top 40, they had a little leeway for fun.

The production combines the Motown Sound with a spirit similar to Jimmy Soul’s 1963 hit “If You Wanna Be Happy.” In Soul’s song, ugly women cause fewer problems that pretty ones. For the Contours, fiscal assets are more desirable than physical ones. Or as the lyrics so eloquently put it, “If the purse is fat/that’s where it’s at.”

It’s not surprising the number failed to catch on, although it did prevent the group from becoming a one-hit wonder. What is surprising is the longevity of the group. As the original lineup fell away, Berry Gordy kept replacing members. Billy Gordon, the man who sang lead on “Do You Love Me” was replaced by Joe Stubbs, brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs. After Stubbs left, Dennis Edwards was recruited to front the group.

It seemed the end for the Contours when the Temptations plucked Edwards to be their frontman in 1968. Founding member Joe Billingslea had other plans. Nearly 10 years after he left the group, Billingslea, a founding member, resurrected the name and hired four other singers to play and record with him around Detroit.

The band found themselves in demand after the Motown 25 concert and the 1988 film “Dirty Dancing,” which prominently featured “Do You Love Me.” The subsequent Dirty Dancing Concert Tour found Billingslea reunited with his old bandmate Sylvester Potts and recording for Motor City Records. In the early ’90s, Potts split from Billingslea’s quintet and started his own four-piece lineup, also called The Contours. Today, both Joe Billingslea and the Contours and The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts can be found on the oldies and county fair circuit.

Top 10 concerts of 2008


Above: Watching the Dirtbombs rip through “Ever Lovin’ Man” at The Bottleneck was one of the Top 10 shows of the year.

By Joel Francis

(Note: All concerts in Kansas City, Mo., unless otherwise stated.)

10. Dirtbombs, The Bottleneck, Lawrence, Kan., May 25
The Dirtbombs didn’t get started until midnight, but no one seemed to mind. With barely three dozen fans in the club, just showing up was a sign of devotion.  For the next hour, singer/guitarist Mick Collins and his band plowed through solid cuts like “Ever Lovin’ Man” off their latest album, “We Have You Surrounded,” and soul covers like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Underdog” from their classic album, “Ultraglide in Black.” Collins hails from the Motor City and he embraces its every aspects, combining the soul of Motown with the soiled fuzz of the White Stripes and Stooges.

9. Carbon/Silicon, Record Bar, March 29
It isn’t often a member of the Clash comes to town, and even more rare they’d play a 200-person room like The Record Bar. With barely a nod to his old band, guitarist/songwriter/singer Mick Jones displayed the chops and charm that made him a legend. Read the full review.

8. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Qwest Center, Omaha, March 14
Bruce Springsteen closed his “Magic” tour with a three-hour performance at the Sprint Center. I didn’t make that one, but I did see his warm-up gig a few months earlier in Omaha. Springsteen and company treated the crowd to most of his latest album and liberally sprinkled classics like “Jungleland,” “She’s the One” “Thunder Road,” which featured a guest appearance from hometown boy Conor Oberst. Read the full review.

7. Rhett Miller, Largo, Los Angeles, April 11
The Old 97s had barely reconvened when Rhett Miller struck out alone for two nights on the tiny stage at Largo, Los Angeles’ legendary artist-friendly club. He dusted off several 97s favorites and debuted songs from the group’s upcoming album “Blame It On Gravity.” Miller also tromped through his solo catalog and treated the intimate crowd to his favorite covers. The appearance of pianist Jon Brion midway through the set was the cherry on the sundae. The two musicians renewed their musical friendship through songs like David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Wilco’s “California Stars” that had the pair grinning like schoolboys. Miller announced he was recording the show for future release. Keep your fingers crossed this pops up.

6. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Granada Theater, Lawrence, Kan., Jan. 29
It was after 11 p.m. on an icy winter night when the Dap-Kings took the stage. Within minutes it felt like a hot 1966 summer afternoon. Clad in matching suits, their three-piece horn section complementing the three-piece rhythm section, the Dap-Kings – go-to performers for everyone from Amy Winehouse to Seattle’s Saturday Knights – settled into a solid soul groove. Moments later, the diminutive Sharon Jones skittered across the stage as if she were shot from a cannon. Like a perfect hybrid of James Brown and Tina Turner, Jones partied through songs from her three albums and taught the crowd a few new dance moves. The heat from the band must have pushed the overall mercury up, because when it was all over outside didn’t feel as cold.

5. Randy Newman, Folly Theater, Oct. 11
Randy Newman found a break from his day job scoring movies to make a quick run to the heartland and give his first Missouri show in a generation. Working primarily from this year’s “Harps and Angels” album, Newman’s solo set was stocked with more than two dozen catalog favorites peppered with hilarious asides, all performed in front of a sold-out, appreciative audience. Read the full review.

4. Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Starlight Theater, Sept. 23
Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones may be beating down Robert Plant’s door to reconvene Led Zeppelin, but Plant would be better served sticking with Alison Krauss. With a muse mightier than his former bandmates can imagine, Plant and Krauss delivered two hours of spellbinding music with arguably the greatest backing band of all time. Read the full review.

3. Dave Brubeck, Folly Theater, Oct. 2
Dave Brubeck quit touring Europe a few years ago, so the 88-year-old jazz pianist’s occasional treks to Kansas City are even more prized. Most people know Brubeck from his groundbreaking quartet with Paul Desmond, but his new group is arguably as good. Randy Jones did more with the nine pieces in his drum kit than most drummers can do with triple the amount, while saxophone player Bobby Militello applied sheets of sound and originality to Desmond’s well-worn and much-beloved “Take Five.” The quartet encored with a brief, smirking reading of Braham’s “Lullabye.”

2. Radiohead, Verizon Wireless (formerly Riverfront) Ampitheater, St. Louis, May 14
Radiohead’s last concert in the area was on the “Hail To the Thief” tour and I have been kicking myself for five years for missing them. No longer. The band’s set burned with the intensity of a supernova, climaxing with “Fake Plastic Trees.” Early detours through the “Idiotheque” and all of “In Rainbows” made the evening both invigorating and draining – and just enough to hold me over until the next tour. Read the full review.

1. Tom Waits, Fox Theater, St. Louis, June 26
Hipsters, hippies, bikers and beatniks alike populated the sold-out congregation for Tom Waits first visit to St. Louis in a generation. He made it a night to remember, performing rarities like “Heigh Ho!” (for the only time on the tour), old favorites like “Rain Dogs” and new gems like “Day After Tomorrow.” Oh yeah, and advice on how to bid on eBay. Read the full review.

Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

sugar-pie-honey-bunch
Four Tops – “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

The piano riff that kicks off this tune is instantly and universally recognizable – and with good reason. Depsite the apologetic lyrics, Levi Stubbs’ magnificent vocals are a ray of sunshine. He might be singing that he’s “weaker than a man should be,” but Stubbs is clearly having more fun than he should for a man in his predicament.

The string arrangement echoes the upbeat, impulsive melody – pay attention to the delightful vibraphone line – while Funk Brother Richard “Pistol” Allen’s offbeat drumming keep the feet moving. Stubbs’ vocals sound like the direct descendent of Kansas City, Mo. jazzman Big Joe Turner’s “shout” singing style. If they couldn’t bring his lover back, then the saxophone interlude should have sealed the deal.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s song capped five straight No. 1 hits with the Supremes. Although the trio penned the Tops’ early hits like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” Berry Gordy thought they had lost their touch and passed the Tops to Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s pen for “Ask the Lonely.” After the success of “I Can’t Help Myself,” Holland-Dozier-Holland were given nearly exclusive rights to the Tops’ singles for the next three years.

In the summer of 1965, this song fought for the No. 1 spot with The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones. What a summer that must have been.

Brenda Holloway – “When I’m Gone”

bholloway
Brenda Holloway – “When I’m Gone,” Pop # 25, R&B #12

By Joel Francis

Brenda Holloway isn’t the biggest name in soul music, but she was on top of the world when this song hit 1965. She opened for the Beatles on their U.S. tour that year, and performed at the legendary Shea Stadium show.

The story behind “When I’m Gone” is more interesting than the song itself. Originally slated to be Mary Well’s follow-up to “My Guy,” the song was given to Holloway when Wells spurned Motown for 20th Century Fox Records. Despite being an alto to Well’s soprano, Berry Gordy thought Holloway was best-suited to put lead vocals to Well’s backing track.

“When I’m Gone” wasn’t as big a hit as “Every Little Bit Hurts,” but Holloway kept making singles for the next three years. Shortly after recording the original version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (later a huge hit for Blood Sweat and Tears), Holloway retired from the music business. Deeply religious, Holloway was disillusioned with Motown and conflicted about the lifestyle expected of a young star. Although she was just 22, Holloway had been making records for 6 years. After a 12-year absence, she returned with gospel album in 1980 and a pop album in 1999.

Junior Walker and the All-Stars – “Shotgun”

shot
Junior Walker and the All-Stars – “Shotgun,” Pop #4, R&B #1

Motown raided the juke joints for Junior Walker’s biggest hit. The song is propelled by Victor Thomas’s Hammond organ as much as Walker’s sax, and is closer to the Southern styling of Booker T. and the MGs and King Curtis than the Motown sound.

At the time, Walker was better-known for his playing than his singing. Initially, a studio singer was booked to sing Walker’s response to the fad dances of the time, like “The Jerk” and “The Watusi.” When the singer failed to arrive, Walker reluctantly stepped behind the mic to cut what he thought would be a guide vocal. Producer Berry Gordy prevailed on Walker to leave the track as-is. Gordy’s judgement was accurate, as the song shot to the top of the chart and inspired several similar singles, including Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew.”

Walker’s quartet is rounded out by the sharp guitar punctuation of Willie Woods and the solid backbeat from drummer Benny Benjamin. – by Joel Francis

Review: Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” at the Hollywood Bowl

Above: Van the Man’s down on “Cyprus Avenue.”

By Joel Francis

If Van Morrison’s 1968 release “Astral Weeks” is the album of a lifetime, then watching him perform it live in its entirety is the chance of a lifetime.

Kansas City’s own Irish troubadour Eddie Delahunt took advantage of that opportunity and booked a trip to see Van Morrison perform his seminal album on November 8, the last of two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

“It was historic,” Delahunt said. “I’ve seen Van before, and sometimes he can be grumpy with the material. This was the best I’d seen him. He played it straight and true. You could see he was real with it.”

Morrison opened the night by revisiting some of his bigger numbers, like “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” and lesser-known album cuts like “And the Healing Has Begun” and “Summertime in England.”

“‘Caravan’ was great, but there were no leg kicks like in ‘The Last Waltz,'” Delahunt said with a laugh, referring to Morrison’s performance in the 1978 Martin Scorsese film about The Band. “During ‘The Healing Game’ he did a little back-and-forth (call and response) with Richie Buckley on sax, trying to trip him up.”

Delahunt’s $250 terrace seats placed him dead center, about 40 yards from the stage. He said the high prices – tickets started at $350 – kept the crowd over 30 years old and the bowl under capacity.

“Van had the crowd in his hands for the first set,” Delahunt said. “Then they took a 15 minute break to rearrange the stage for ‘Astral Weeks’ and Van ran it straight through.”

For “Astral Weeks,” Morrison’s band, which was assembled in a semi-circle around him, was augmented by a three-piece string section and “Astral Weeks” album guitarist Jay Berliner. Original session bassist Richard Davis was also scheduled to join the group, but a last-minute family emergency kept him away.

Morrison shuffled the album’s order, slipping the closer “Slim Slow Slider” into the third spot and coupling the upbeat jazz numbers “Sweet Thing” and “The Way Young Lovers Do” into a powerful one-two punch.

“Everyone loved ‘Madame George,’ but ‘Cyprus Avenue’ was the best for me. He played it closest to the album and you could see he was enjoying it,” Delahunt said. “During a song like ‘Slim Slow Slider,’ he wasn’t just playing the harmonica, but humming into it.”

Morrison closed the evening with an one-song encore of “Listen To the Lion” and a twist on an old phrase.

“As Van said at the end,” Delahunt recalled, “‘You made a happy man very old.'”

Note: The performance was filmed for future release on DVD. Catch Eddie Delahunt in concert by checking out his concert calendar.

Four Tops – “Ask the Lonely”

4t
Four Tops – “Ask the Lonely,” Pop #24, R&B #9

The name on the label says “Four Tops” but this is really a Levi Stubbs record. Stubbs was never one of Motown’s marquee vocalists, and the injustice of that act is amplified by his three-minute tour-de-force singing here. Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Hunter’s song and production is more mature than the typical Motown single. Stubbs’ classic soul voice is imbedded with the “hurting pain” he’s imploring his friend to avoid. The female backing vocals sound silly when they introduce the song, but blend well with the arrangement. The other three Tops are all but absent, but they’re not missed thanks to Stubbs’ heart-wrenching performance.

“Ask the Lonely” is stuck in the Tops’ limbo land. It wasn’t a big hit, but it was too good to be a footnote. The song is still performed at Four Tops concerts today – sans Stubbs’ vocals, of course – but unlike other Motown hits, it never made an impact on the covers circuit. Which is probably just as good. — by Joel Francis