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Posts Tagged ‘Motown’

(Above: Although forgotten by both jazz and pop historians today, bandleader Paul Whiteman was a major figure in early 20th century music. A central figure in Elijah Wald’s latest book, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll,” here is the trailer for Whiteman’s 1930 film “King of Jazz.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Author Elijah Wald has dedicated his past two books to stripping away the legend and mythology surrounding two of music’s most iconic figures, and placing them in the context of their times. In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald demonstrates how Robert Johnson was very much a product of his time, and how his deification was established. Wald’s latest book expands that motif, and bears the inflammatory title “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.”

Wald recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record about some of the themes in his new book and, of course, how the Beatles changed rock and roll.

In the book you talk about how “everything old becomes new again,” and use the Twist to illustrate your point. What are some of the other examples of cyclical trends you discovered?

To be fair, I don’t say everything old can always be recycled. When something new comes along, we tend to look back and find things that seem similar to us. But I think that may be less a recognition of real cycles than a way of making the present seem less strange.

Clearly, things come back, but when they do come back they are different. I’m not sure things are cyclical. It may just be they way we get comfortable with them. When the Twist came around, the way the entertainment industry handled it was to talk with Irene Castle and say “This is like what was happening in 1914, isn’t it?”

Why do you call “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of the ‘20s?

This is really the germ of the whole book. I was reading how people in the people in the 1920s wrote about “Rhapsody in Blue” and noticed how similar it was to what was said about “Sgt. Pepper’s” in the 1960s.

(In the 1920s) everyone was saying how until now jazz was a lot of noise and music for rowdies and kids, but now this had turned it into a mature art form. This is exactly what happened with “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Leonard Bernstein said he was excited about it and Lennon and McCartney were compared to Schubert. Just as “Rhapsody in Blue” created a respectable thing that could still be called “jazz,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” created something respectable that was still considered rock.

Author Elijah Wald.

Who was Paul Whiteman and what was his impact on music? Why has he largely been forgotten today?

I spend a whole chapter in the book on this, but in a nutshell, Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s. He was the man who transformed the perception of jazz from noisy, small groups into large orchestras who played not only fun dance music, but also at Carnegie Hall.

I think Whiteman is largely forgotten because he didn’t swing by and large and was resolutely white. We have understood the history of jazz to largely be a history of African-American music. Whiteman tried, for better or worse, to separate jazz from that heritage.

In many ways, the 1940s parallel today, in that there is fear new technology will usurp the traditional way artists got paid. Then it was a fear of jukeboxes and radio’s reliance on pre-recorded music and today, of course, the dominant issue is digital piracy. What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve observed between these two decades?

The huge difference is that all the things we talked about in the ‘40s did involve musicians getting paid, just different musicians. It was R&B and country musicians getting paid instead of big bands. A lot of people previously neglected became huge stars.

What’s happening now is really dangerous, in terms of musicians continuing to be able to make a living. It is exciting, in terms of everyone being able to make their music available to millions of listeners, but it is getting harder and harder to make a living in music. It’s more like a lottery – win and become a star or lose and go on to something else.

There are skills you develop as a professional musician that we’re seeing less and less of because people don’t perform as much. Everyone in my book went through an apprenticeship playing seven nights a week for four or five hours a night. Those opportunities no longer exist. There’s no way to build those kinds of skills today.

Explain the difference between hot and sweet combos. Why have the hot survived while the sweet are dismissed?

A lot of people will say this is a false dichotomy. Everyone played some sweet and some hot, but the best way to explain the difference to people of my generation is to go back to the British Invasion. In the U.S., we thought of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as belonging to the same genre. In England, however, the Beatles were called pop and the Rolling Stones were called R&B, and it’s easy to understand why.

The way we look at it today, hot bands played for boys who were into music as fans and listeners, while sweet bands were for sappy girls. That’s not the way I would phrase it, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Women have always been the determining pop buyers, because they like to dance, but men have always been the main critics. In any case, in the 1930s the two extremes were Guy Lombardo on the sweet end and Count Basie as hot, but most bands were in the middle.

One reason the hot bands live on is because by and large the only people listening today are jazz fans and they always liked the hot bands better. There’s also the racial component I mentioned earlier. I don’t disagree that what is exciting in American music was largely taken from African-American music—I would argue that it’s more complicated than that, because they are always interchanging, but as a listener I am certainly more excited by Basie than by Lombardo. As a historian, though, I am interested in both, and well aware that in their era Lombardo was far more popular.

What is the connection between swing and rock and roll?

It was the hot dance music, youthful, noisy dance music. We think of these worlds as separate, but a lot of the same musicians crossed over. The first house band for Alan Freed’s rock party was the Count Basie Orchestra. Bill Haley and the Comets all did their apprenticeships playing swing. Musically, there was a lot of overlap.

How did the success of the Beatles and other late-‘60s rock bands segregate the music industry? What are the lasting effects of that segregation?

Two things happened at once. One, the Beatles arrived when the industry was moving very heavily toward black music. The myth is the Beatles rescued us from Frankie Avalon, but they really rescued us from Motown and girl groups. If you look at the charts, black groups had so completely taken over, they actually stopped having separate charts.

The Beatles and British Invasion bands were exciting, but their rhythm sections were old fashioned. In a world of Motown and James Brown they played archaic styles. Black kids were not much interested in the British bands, because they weren’t as much fun to dance to—and it was not just black kids, but everyone who was dancing to Motown, which included a lot of white kids, especially white girls.

At the same time, the discotheque craze was hitting, so people didn’t have to have live bands. The lasting effect of that is that you no longer had to have one band who could play every style of music. Before you couldn’t have a band play only black or white music, because people wanted to dance to and hear the full range of current hits. In the ‘60s, though, you could have one band only play one kind of music, because when you wanted to hear a different kind you could just change the record.

In the epilogue you discuss how rock and dance music gradually began playing to divergent audiences. Do you think they will intersect again?

Today we don’t have bands that have to play anything, period. It’s a sad reality that if you listen to hit records – or even records that aren’t hits, by little-known, local performers – the number of records where the group on the album plays regularly is vanishingly small. The number of hits that can be recreated without recordings is virtually none.

Don’t get me wrong; hip hop couldn’t exist in a world where you had to play everything live and I think hip hop is exciting. Overall, however, the world of live music is becoming extinct. There are certainly plenty of people for whom live music is important, and I’m sure there always will be, but they are increasingly a minority.

Keep reading:

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll”

Talking King Records with author Jon Hartley Fox

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with author Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Raphael Saadiq brought nearly 90 minutes of eight-track soul jams into an iPod world Wednesday night at the VooDoo Lounge.

Taking the stage in a suit and glasses that echoed Temptation David Ruffin, Saadiq strapped on a white Telecaster as his six-piece band vamped over a groove that sounded like a lost Motown backing track.Setting the guitar aside, he plowed through several numbers from his latest album, the Motown and Philly soul-inspired “The Way I See It,” but it took a couple songs for the performance to connect with the audience. Part of that could have been the size of the crowd. The floor started about a quarter full, though it swelled considerably as the night wore on.

A better reason, though, was the 15-foot buffer the polite crowd kept from the stage. Sensing they need to turn things up a notch, the band kicked “100 Yard Dash” into high gear as Saadiq implored the crowd to move closer. Once they did, Saadiq kept them in the palm of his hand for the rest of the night.

The band brought out the slow jams for a quick one-two of Saadiq’s better-known cuts from his Lucy Pearl project and got everyone involved with a medley of Tony! Toni! Tone! favorites.

Sporting a broad grin, Saadiq clearly enjoyed watching the audience take over his old material. He nailed a falsetto toward the end of “Anniversary” that put nearly every woman in the audience over the edge. When he forgot the words to “All I Ask Of You” a moment later, no one seemed to mind when he took several bars to collect himself before starting again.

Album opener “Sure Hope You Mean” it was stretched out to include snippets of “Going To Kansas City” and the evening’s most intimate moment. As the band broke down the chorus, Saadiq held the mic by his side and sang to himself. Dancing around the stage he seemed lost in a private moment, oblivious to the audience.

The crowd tipped toward the thirty-year mark. For most of them, this was as close to a Motown revue as they were likely to see. Many of the folks in the balcony and sprinkled throughout the floor, however, were seeing the soul music of their childhood echoed for the second or third time.

Saadiq didn’t make it easy for the scores of fans holding cell phones and cameras to take his picture. He was constantly moving, strutting, spinning or dancing in synchronicity with his two backing vocalists. The only time he stood still was for a drawn-out gospel intro to “Let’s Talk A Walk” that teased the crowd several times.

Nearly an hour after he took the stage, Saadiq said goodnight and departed. He and the band quickly returned to perform “Still Ray” and “Big Easy,” a number inspired by Hurricane Katrina. His white Telecaster back on for the final number, Saadiq may have said goodnight once again, but his hands kept playing. He and the band jammed for a good five minutes before everyone left the stage.

The show seemed longer than its 75 minutes, but even its length was an old-school throwback. It was the same duration as those classic double-live concert LPs.

Setlist: Keep Marching, Love That Girl, 100 Yard Dash, Dance Tonight, La La, Just One Kiss, Oh Girl, Tony! Toni! Tone! Medley: Lay Your Head On My Pillow; Anniversary; All I Ask Of You; Just Me and You, Be Here, Let’s Take A Walk, Sure Hope You Mean It, Staying In Love. Encore: Still Ray,Big Easy.

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(Above: Raphael Saadiq runs the “100 Yard Dash.”)

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Raphael Saadiq’s latest album, “The Way I See It,” is draped heavily in the sounds of Motown and Philly soul, but don’t call it a tribute album.

“Boyz II Men did a tribute; I wrote a bunch of songs,” Saadiq said about his all-originals album. “This was not intended to be a tribute album. It’s more like a secret love letter to the people I love.”

People like the Funk Brothers, Motown’s now-legendary stable of musicians, and the other unknown musicians who “took music to the level where it is today that I can come out and do this,” Saadiq said. “It’s not just about Smokey (Robinson) and Stevie Wonder, but a bunch of people we don’t even know about.”

He plays most of the instruments on the album himself, but Saadiq recruited two Funk Brothers to help him get that classic Motown sound. Jack Ashford’s tambourine has graced classics like “Nowhere to Run” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Paul Riser, who arranged the strings on Saadiq’s album, has worked with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

“I brought Jack in because he added a sound I couldn’t have had without him,” said Saadiq, who performs Wednesday at the VooDoo Lounge. “With Paul Riser it was the same thing. You can feel the energy when they walk into a room.”

Having Stevie Wonder play harmonica on one song was ultimate validation. Saadiq even went so far as to introduce his guest like Wonder introduced Dizzy Gillespie on his 1982 hit “Do I Do.”

“Seeing Stevie walk into a room and play is something I’ve never gotten used to,” Saadiq said. “Having him play on this was a stamp of approval. I’ve worked hard for a long time to have him come play (on my album).”

The former Tony! Toni! Tone! singer, who named his first solo album “Instant Vintage,” is more worried about being called “neo soul” than being pigeonholed.

“Everybody knows I hate the term ‘neo-soul,’ ” Saadiq said. “If someone was playing the blues they’d want an old soul. I don’t want a new soul — then I’d sound like somebody on the radio today, which I hate.”

On an album with so much — ahem — old-school soul, Jay-Z’s guest spot on the final track, a bonus remix, probably surprised many listeners.

“That was Q-Tip’s idea,” said Saadiq, referring to the former MC of A Tribe Called Quest. “He was like, ‘You should put Jay-Z on this record’ and then went and got him, because I didn’t know Jay like that. Some people didn’t like it. They’re probably neo-soul fans. I did this for the other people.”

More on Raphael Saadiq from The Daily Record:
“The Way I See It” album review
“The Way I See It” caps the Top 10 albums of 2008

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Above: The Rev. Al Green brings “Love and Happiness.”

By Joel Francis

After barely over an hour onstage, Al Green said goodnight, grabbed a small black duffle bag and exited. The gesture was symbolic of the evening: the bags were packed and he was ready to go.

Saturday’s concert at the Midland Theater was the final stop on Green’s eight-month tour that took him across America and around Europe; he was anxious to get home.

“Two month is a long time,” he said. “Even a preacher can’t go that long.”

That might explain the truncated set – 77 minutes, with no encore – and why it always felt like Green had one foot off the stage.

For the most part, Green let his 13-piece band and the audience do most of the heavy lifting. After introducing the first couple lines, Green was all too happy to let the audience take over his songs. Beaming from ear to ear, he was content to scat guide vocals over the crowd’s singing and hand roses to women in the front rows.

Green Hovered like a cloud over the numbers, dipping in just long enough to let out a scream or prove the health of his pipes. When he fully immersed himself in a song, the result was even better than his allusions. During “Tired of Being Alone” Green dropped to his knees and uncurled a falsetto that raised goose bumps. He poured his heart into “Amazing Grace” and came alive during a medley of Motown and Stax numbers that inspired him as a boy.

It would be easy to assume Green was simply bored with his repertoire if he wasn’t so perpetually joyous. After overcoming some early monitor problems, Green chatted effusively to the crowd, healing the Kansas/Missouri divide, telling stories from the tour and preaching a little gospel. Since Green had tossed “Let’s Stay Together” out a half-hour into the night, he closed with his next-biggest song, “Love and Happiness.” At end the band vamped over the groove, stretching the number out as Green thanked his crowd again and again, but the effect didn’t work – it was still too soon for him to leave.

With the premium seats going for $70, the evening cost about a dollar per minute after service fees. While there are worse ways to spend a night out, there wasn’t enough of the man whose name was printed on the ticket to justify the price.

Setlist: I Can’t Stop; Let’s Get Married; Lay It Down; Stay With Me (By the Sea); Everything’s Gonna Be Alright; Amazing Grace/Nearer My God To Thee; Let’s Stay Together; Medley: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart / Here I Am (Come and Take Me) / I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) / My Girl / Bring It On Home to Me /(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay / You Are Everything); Tired of Being Alone; I’m Still In Love With You; Simply Beautiful; Love and Happiness

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Shorty Long – “Devil with the Blue Dress,” did not chart

Mitch Ryder and Bruce Springsteen fans will be taken aback by Shorty Long’s half-speed tempo on his original recording of “Devil with the Blue Dress.” Long’s bluesy shuffle is closer to Chicago blues than Detroit soul. It’s a far cry from the frenetic, late-set showstopper “Devil” has become.

Long’s co-writer Mickey Stevenson’s crisp production serves the song well – check the smacking echo in the handclaps and the dry wash Long’s guitar is given. All the elements are in place for a hit – why this didn’t stick is a mystery. Perhaps Long’s early demise in a boating accident just five years later, in 1969, and the success of Ryder’s 1966 cover, erased him from public consciousness.

When Ryder took transplanted the number from the roadhouse to the garage, he doubled the speed and paired it with Little Richards’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” and got a No. 4 hit. That’s the arrangement Springsteen is prone to trot out, but Long’s original vision is a Motown treasure waiting to be unearthed. — by Joel Francis

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Mary Wells – “My Guy,” Pop #1

Before Gladys Knight, Martha Reeves and certainly Diana Ross, Mary Wells was Motown’s first female (super)star. Landing a No. 1 single in the heart of Beatlemania was no small feat. Arguably none of the Motown’s female stars have had bigger or more recognizable hits than “My Guy.” The Beatles themselves were so enraptured with Wells that they called her their favorite American singer.

Unfortunately, the Smokey Robinson-penned “My Guy,” was also Well’s swan song. Just a few months after “My Guy” was released, and while it was still very much ruling the charts, Wells exercised the termination clause in her Motown contract. Only 21 years old, she signed with 20th Century Fox with dreams of higher royalty rates and movie stardom. Leaving Motown also meant leaving Robinson, who penned and produced many of her greatest songs. Wells landed only one hit on the Top 40 pop charts after leaving Motown. She spent the rest of the decade bouncing to Atco, then Jubilee Records and finally Reprise Records.

Motown founder Berry Gordy was quick to groom a replacement for Wells – Diana Ross.

While the back story is interesting, none of it matters when listening to the actual song. The giddy, lightness in Wells’ delivery and the Funk Brothers bouncy accompaniment make “My Guy” stand up to the most narrow oldies playlists and misguided covers. Check the breathy semi-stutter Wells uses to sing “there’s not a man today who can take me away from my guy” in the outro. Pure delight. — by Joel Francis

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The final installment of my conversation with soul music fan Brad S. includes how to build a solid, affordable soul music libarty. Here is part one and part two.

Brad S.: Okay, list time: What are your Top 10 Motown albums? You mentioned “What’s Going On,” “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Talking Book” and “Cloud Nine.” What other albums make the cut? I’m going to ask you to go for diversity here, especially if we’re fighting the perception of that “Motown hit song” stereotype.

Joel Francis: The thing to remember about albums is that prior to 1967 and “Sgt. Pepper’s,” pop albums were basically collections of singles. Going back a bit further, before Frank Sinatra’s concept albums for Capital in the late ’50s, LPs were for classical and jazz (i.e. longer performances) almost exclusively.

Berry Gordy had a hard time when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder presented him with album-length concepts in the early ’70s. One could argue that “What’s Going On” and “Talking Book” were the first Motown albums that weren’t just glorified singles collections.

I know this contradicts what I said earlier, but I don’t think I can defy your stereotypes of mid-’60s Motown with any albums. That said, there are some great collections that show the depth and richness of the Motown performers of that era.

Universal, who now owns the Motown catalog, did a great job of anthologizing the great Motown groups on the “Ultimate Collection” CDs in the ’90s. These discs get the nod because they’re cheap (about $5 used on Amazon) and comprehensive. They all run in excess of two dozen tracks, which is more than enough to hit all the often-heard must-haves, but provide a deeper examination and context as well.

It’s hard to go wrong with a solid collection of Smokey Robinsons, The Temptations, early Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes. These might not be as diverse as you were expecting, but songs like “Going to a Go-Go,” “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Ball of Confusion” have fallen through the cracks and are worth revisiting. Divorcing oldies staples like “Uptight” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from a Top 40 context and placing them back in the artist’s cannon shines new light and perspective on the warhorses.

Because of its distribution deal with Warner Bros. the Stax side is a bit more complicated. Collections tended to fall on the pre- or post-Warner Bros. side and paint an incomplete picture. Fortunately, the consolidation of the major record labels has put all of Stax output in the hands of Concord Records. Concord has revived the Stax brand and started issuing comprehensive collections for the first time.

While there is no definitive Stax anthology series like Motown’s “Ultimate Collection,” quality single- and double-disc collections and box sets are available for nearly every Stax artist. I’d start with Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes and play around from there.

Two four-disc box sets provide a comprehensive overview of each label’s glory years. The Daily Record has been discussing each track on “Hitsville U.S.A.” A good follow-up project may be a walk through the “Stax Story” collection, though with more than 80 tracks to go with “Hitsville” I wouldn’t get too ancy.

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