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(Above: T-Model Ford wants to cut you loose.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few links remain to the golden age of Delta Blues. Most of the artists are dead, and the generation that followed grew up cities far away from sharecropping plantations. T-Model Ford’s appearance at Davey’s Uptown on Thursday night was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the roots of the blues.

Ford drew a diverse group of about 60 fans, spanning several generations and including bikers, punk rockers, hipsters, musicologists and the curious. What they got was either an embarrassment of riches or way too much.

Fliers promised Ford would be performing with a band, but his only backing was Gravel Road drummer Marty Reinsel. Together the pair coaxed a sound that distilled nearly every traditional variety of the blues into one long shuffle. The guitar-and-drums duo played with a simplicity the White Stripes and Black Keys could only imagine.

There was no set list. For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, Ford flipped through the vast blues songbook in his mind and played whatever started coming out of his fingers. The results included well-known songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “My Babe” and Ford originals such as “Chicken Head Man” and “Cut Me Loose.”

Seated on a cushioned chair, Ford looked completely relaxed. During the glacial pauses between verses he gazed across the room, a gentle smile on his face as if he had no cares in the world. Across Ford’s lap was Black Nanny, a Peavy electric guitar that looked like it had been stolen from a hair metal band. Ford twice called it the best guitar in the world.

Regardless of their origin, most songs were based on a two-chord shuffle that had nowhere to go and was in no particular hurry to get there. Most songs ambled along for about five minutes, several stretched to nearly twice that length. Ford’s smooth singing was almost stream-of-conscious, picking up verses halfway through, mixing stanzas and inventing new verses altogether.

Reinsel’s drumming was the element that held the set together. He held back on most songs, altering his emphasis ever so slightly to keep the endless boogies from becoming monotonous. The more aggressive rhythms on “Chicken Head Man” had a Keith Moon energy.

Between songs, Ford massaged the arthritis in his right hand. After one number, he declared it “Jack Daniels time” and downed the contents of the shot glass sitting on his amplifier. He told a story about getting married last week and told the women in the room that “If she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

But what was hypnotic for some was tedious for others and near the end of the first set the chatter from the bar in the back of the room threatened to take over the space. After a 75-minute set, Ford took a break which eliminated many of the less-dedicated fans.

If the night had stopped there no one would have felt shortchanged. No one is sure of Ford’s age, least of all the man himself, but most peg his birth sometime during the Harding administration. Unlike many bluesmen, Ford didn’t start playing guitar late in life and didn’t record an album until 1997 when he was discovered by the Fat Possum label.

The hour-long second set reprised many of the favorites from the first set, including “Sallie Mae” and “That’s Alright.” By the third go-round of “Hoochie Coochie Man” what started as innocent started looking senile. It didn’t stop anyone from dancing, though. As a friend said at the end, when you’re 90 years old you can play the blues any way you want.

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(Above: The crew at Championship Vinyl discuss their favorite Side 1, Track 1’s in the ultimate record store flick “High Fidelity.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Music fans geeked out for Record Store Day, have a new bedside companion until the next incarnation of the annual event. In “Record Store Days,” Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo have loving assembled a history of their musical Mecca.

The tome operates on several levels. The bountiful pictures that depict the stacks, musicians and proprietors of record shops qualify the book as a fetish object. It’s easy to get lost in the details, such as trying to identify the covers on display during Elvis Presley’s trip to a Memphis shop, or getting lost in the promotion displays in a picture the counter at The Holiday Shop, a Roeland Park, Kan. store in the 1950s.

The chapters are quickly paced, and contain lots of headers, so they can be read in bits and pieces. There are nearly as many sidebars as photos. The insets tell the stories behind the most outlandish names, like Minneapolis’ Oarjokefolkopus or Los Angeles’ Licorice Pizza, chronicle the history of record stores in movies, and tell about finding that first love in the racks – musical or otherwise. Along the way, plenty of musicians, owners and fans relate their favorite vinyl experiences.

Finally, the book offers a comprehensive history of the independent retail industry. The story starts at the turn of the last century, when records were sold in furniture stores as an accoutrement to Victrolas and other record players. Like everything else, music sales declined during the Depression, and the materials used to create the platters were scarce during World War II.

The record store as we know it blossomed in the 1950s, and enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. The spaces almost became alternative community centers, where music fans would swap songs and stories while digging for the latest gem.

The final half of the book also serves as a cautionary tale of the industry. CDs gradually replace vinyl, but when the bubble bursts in the late ‘90s, neither the major labels nor the stores have anything to replace them. Particularly telling is the story behind SoundScan, the computer-based sales tabulator that destroyed the manipulative hand tallying.

“Record Store Days” ends on a happy note, with the opening of Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the recent resurgence of vinyl. The final chapter discusses the founding of Record Store Day and is sunny enough to convince anyone to hop in their car and run to a record shop as soon as they finish the page. The book doesn’t try to be objective. It reads like a loving embrace written by people who love vinyl, for record fans.

The book’s biggest flaw is that too much of the action is centered in Los Angeles and New York. There are some mentions of Criminal Records in Atlanta, Waterloo in Austin, Texas and Oarjokefolkopus, but little else occurs between the coasts. Some love for the great college town record shops would have been a welcome – and diverse – addition.

Calamar and Gallo are not out to convert new fans to the cult of vinyl, and readers will quickly know if they are in the target audience. (Hint: If you don’t think it’s cool that the record on the cover actually has grooves, this book likely isn’t for you.) The duo knows the next best experience to being in a record store is reading about record stores, and their offering does a great job of taking fans there.

Keep reading:

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

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(Above: Don’t read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting author Elijah Wald to bash the Fab Four.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Elijah Wald’s provocatively titled book slipped into the marketplace about the same time the much-ballyhooed Beatles remasters slammed retail shelves. But Wald isn’t trying to turn fans against their beloved Fab Four. He’s trying to reinforce their importance by approaching their arrival with a magical mystery tour that examines music from a populist perspective.

For the most part, Wald’s narrative manages to ignore critics and historians and answer the greater question of “Why did people like this?” Starting 100 years ago with ragtime, Wald walks through the growth, progression and trends that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.

Wald focuses on the Beatles because they were able to make artistically respectable music while staying true to their genre. Their foil is Paul Whiteman, who despite accomplishing the same feat, has been forgotten.

Whiteman was a Caucasian big band leader who crowned himself “King of Jazz.” Despite earning the endorsements from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and selling millions of records, Whiteman’s career has been largely dismissed by jazz historians because his arrangements were so genteel. Indeed, part of Whiteman’s mission was to sand the rough edges off of jazz and respectable, if unchallenging, middle-brow dance music.

By eschewing the conventional narrative based on critical favorites, Wald shows how mainstream performers and tastes shaped the progression of music. Traditional viewpoints and assumptions are confounded again and again as Wald shows how the popular persuades the acclaimed. For example, Wald tells how Guy Lombardo’s arrangements influenced Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven records.

He also builds interesting parallels between celebrated trendsetters and those who are slighted for their foresight. In one instance, romantic crooner Vaughn Monroe was savaged in the press when his stage shows were little more than reconstructions of his singles. Yet only a few years later, as recorded music replaced live interpretations on the radio, it became what audiences expected.

Wald covers a lot of territory in a hurry, but it rarely feels like any corners are cut. Although the history is told in a linear fashion, Wald is a master of connecting previously unseen dots. The lines he draws between the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Elvis Presley, or Parlimanent-Funkadelic and Benny Goodman are both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. While not all of Wald’s parallels or arguments work, they are worth pondering.

In a way, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” is the natural outgrowth of Wald’s previous book, “Escaping the Delta.” That volume examined the curious arrival of Robert Johnson as the figurehead of “authentic” pre-war blues. In looking at Johnson’s forgotten peers like Peetey Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim, Wald not only places Johnson’s music in context, but draws attention to arguably more deserving performers.

Admittedly, Wald may be giving himself the upper hand by focusing on unheard and unheralded performers. But while Wald’s arguments are contrarian, they are also well-researched and measured. In fact, the only argument Wald fails to back up is his title. Not only does Wald leave the Fab Four’s legacy intact, he doesn’t address them directly until the final two chapters. Fans of the British Invasion and Boomers looking to relieve their adolescence are bound to be disappointed.

Armchair historians and musicologists are bound to be the most pleased with this text. Wald is not encouraging the reader to explore Whiteman’s catalog or discard his or her favorite performers, only look at them through a longer lens.

Keep reading:

A Conversation with Elijah Wald

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 Daily Record

I visited the historic Gennett Records recording studio and the Gennett Walk of Fame in Richmond, Ind. on March 2, 2010. Here are my photos from the trip. (Don’t miss The Daily Record feature “Remembering Gennett Records.”)

This is all that remains of the Gennett building today. Most of the structure was torn down in the 1960s and '70s.

This sign points the way to the Gennett building, but it's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

Close-up of the Gennett parrot still visible on the tower today.

This plaque is mounted on the Gennett building to the left of what appears to be the former main entrance.

There isn't much to see inside the building. The structure has been gutted.

Detail work of the marker celebrating Jelly Roll Morton on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Hoagy Carmichel's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Blues legend Charlie Patton's marker on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Duke Ellington is also honored on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Jelly Roll Morton's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Close-up of the mosaic honoring Charlie Patton on his plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

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(Above: Guy Lombardo urges listeners to “Get Out Those Old Records” in this ode to the 78.)

By Joel Francis

Gallons of cyber-ink have been spilled over the wailing and gnashing of teeth that has accompanied the transition from CDs to iPods.

While I love the convenience of my iPod and cannot be more than a few yards from it without suffering from withdrawal, I also miss the anticipation of new-release Tuesdays that the old paradigm brought.

It is comforting to know, however, that ours is not the first generation of music fans to suffer format growing pains. While reading Gary Marmorstein’s “The Label,” an exhaustive history of Columbia Records, I stumbled on a passage about the poet Philip Larkin, who was furious that long-playing records were starting to replace his beloved 78s.

“When the long-playing record was introduced,” Larkin is quoted as saying in the book, “I was suspicious of it: it seemed a package deal, forcing you to buy bad tracks along with good at an unwanted price.”

Larkin’s displeasure with record labels trying to foist bad tracks on consumers by bundling them with good ones was chillingly prescient. The argument he made in the late ’40s was echoed nearly 50 years later when the labels abolished the single and hiked album prices.

Other mid-century music consumers were upset that the new 22-minute side made listening a passive experience. According to their reasoning, since you didn’t have to get up and change sides every five minutes, the music would just fade into the background.

While classical fans rejoiced that an entire movement could be contained on a single side, jazz fans were less enthusiastic. Many fans, Larkin included, felt that the time limit on a 78 was the optimal span for a group to have its say and leave before overstaying its welcome.

As Marmorstein writes: “Larkin associated the halcyon days of his youth with winding the gramophone and listening to 78s by Louis Armstrong. To Larkin, a single shellacked side was a gem, not these vinyl platters that played interminably.”

Unfortunately for Larkin, the LP not only caught on but was the dominant format for 40 years, when the CD took over. Although Columbia unveiled the LP in 1948, strange parallels still resonate today. The more things change ….

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coon

(Above: Joseph Sanders, left, and Carleton Coon.)

By Joel Francis

The music Carleton Coon and Joseph Sanders made for a dozen years together helped put Kansas City jazz on the map. Their Nighthawk Orchestra may have broken up in 1932, but it’s two bandleaders have been silently reunited for 40 years at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

Coon and Sanders first met at a downtown Kansas City music store in 1918. Tall, handsome and quick-tempered Sanders, was an amateur baseball player on leave from the Army. He was practically the antonym of the pudgy, extroverted Coon. Despite their physical and temperamental differences, both men quickly found they shared a love of jazz and complementary tenor voices.

The following year, when Sanders got out of the Army, the two teamed up, formed a jazz combo and started booking gigs around Kansas City. With Coon handling business, Sanders writing songs and city boss Tom Pendergast ignoring prohibition with his “wide open” bars, clubs and brothels, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra was soon one of town’s in-demand outfits.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 1922, the orchestra was booked to play on radio station WDAF. The success of that performance helped launch their weekly show, broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. When the announcer let slip that “anyone who’d stay up this late to hear us would have to be a real night hawk,” thousands of listeners spread across Canada, Mexico and most of the United States let him know that they were proud to be “night hawks.”

Sanders quickly penned a theme song “Night Hawks Blues” and the pair rechristened their ensemble the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra. In 1924, they recorded for the Victor record label in Chicago and agreed to let burgeoning Chicago promoter Jules Stein book a four-week tour. Stein parlayed his profits from that tour into his own booking company, which he called Music Corporation of America, or MCA.

On the strength of that tour, the Night Hawk Orchestra relocated to Chicago where their performance opening the Balloon Ballroom of the Congress Hotel was broadcast on KYW. Two years later, they moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant where fan Al Capone frequently left $100 tips for the band. On the strength of WGN radio broadcasts and reputation built playing around Chicago (including Capone’s Dells supper club in Morton Grove, Ill.), the Coon-Sanders Orchestra relocated once again in 1931.

Broadcasting weekly from Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker on CBS radio, Coon and Sanders found themselves in the same Big Apple circles as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. Coon loved the night life, frequenting the Cotton Club and other Harlem jazz clubs, and making friends with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Sanders, on the other hand, was less enamored. He longed for the Midwest and made his sentiment plain the final number recorded by the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra, “I Want to Go Home.”

Unfortunately, circumstances forced the bandleaders’ hands. Popular taste was shifting away from the Caucasian stylings of Coon and Sanders and toward all-black ensembles like the Ellington, Calloway and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten orchestras.

These circumstances, coupled with the Great Depression, forced the Night Hawks back to Chicago in April, 1932, for an engagement at the College Inn. Sander’s delight to be back in familiar territory was tempered when Coon was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. He died a few weeks later from blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.

kc-graves_coon1

Coon’s 1932 funeral was one of the largest Kansas City had seen. Although his procession carried on for miles, his band’s legacy did not stretch so far. Less than a year after Coon’s death, Sanders dissolved the group and moved to Hollywood to write movie scores. Although Sanders was active in music for the rest of his life, he never regained the popularity he found with the Nighthawk Orchestra. In 1965, he died after having a stroke and was buried about 200 yards sound of his friend, Carleton Coon, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Today, the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra is a footnote in the Kansas City jazz story that includes big bands lead by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann, and soloists like Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page and, of course, Charlie Parker. But Coon and Sander’s early triumphs helped paved the way for all who followed them out of Kansas City.

Ironically, the Night Hawks are most celebrated in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans’ Bash has been held on the weekend after Mother’s Day for 39 years.sanders

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