(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.
Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.
The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.
Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.
A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.
Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.
Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.
Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.
Chances are good that Chicago-based music writer Bill Dahl has penned the liner notes to at least one of your favorite reissues or compilations. Since 1985, Dahl has been commissioned to write the notes for hundreds of blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock collections on both major and boutique labels.
In 1998, Dhal was recognized with a Grammy nomination for his essay on Ray Charles’ sax section included in the “Ray Charles – Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection” box set. In 2000, he received the Keepin’ the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. His book, “Motown: The Golden Years” was published in 2001. Dahl’s latest project was co-authoring the amazingly comprehensive liner notes for each of the 12 volumes in the Hip-O Select “Complete Motown Singles” series.
Dahl also writes regularly on his Web site. He recently spoke to The Daily Record via e-mail.
The Daily Record: What was your first exposure to Motown and how did you become interested in writing about it?
Bill Dahl: I started buying quite a bit of Motown vinyl—the Miracles, the Temptations, Jr. Walker, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops—during the early ‘70s as an outgrowth of my record collecting interests, which were expanding rapidly from my original love of ‘50s rock and roll. I was getting into soul, blues, rockabilly, etc., and loving it all (much to the chagrin of my mainstream rock-loving high school classmates, who ragged me unmercifully; I guess I never was much of a conformist).
TDR: What are some of the more interesting stories or facts you learned in researching these liner notes?
BD: One thing that always impresses me is the loyalty the great majority of Motown’s ‘60s artists have to the company and Mr. Gordy to this day. I was fortunate to attend a charity tribute to him a few years ago in LA, and a virtual galaxy of Motown stars performed and paid homage to their beaming boss. Later, all of them trooped up to the stage at the end to sing the old Hitsville fight song!
I’ve found it interesting that several of the better-known songwriting teams had a similar setup to that of Lennon-McCartney—if one wrote it, both names went on automatically. It’s been a pleasure tracking down a lot of the lesser-known acts, including a lot of the Rare Earth label rockers, to get their intriguing stories. They’re too often overlooked and made their own contributions to Hitsville history.
TDR: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about Motown?
BD: The goofy and totally unfounded rumors that the mob was involved with the label, solely because a few very competent Caucasians wielded power in the front office. The only color Mr. Gordy cared about was green, so he hired the best person for the job. There were more than a few R&B labels where “da boys” were in up to their eyeballs (no names here), but Motown wasn’t one of them.
TDR: Motown’s big stars get a lot of attention. Who are some of the unheralded Motown artists worth checking out? Were there any long-forgotten gems you discovered as a result of working on the Complete Motown Singles notes?
BD: I remember being amazed by Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” which is on the first Complete Singles box. It sounds like B. Bumble and the Stingers meet Hitsville!
Gino Parks’ “Same Thing” (which I knew about already) and several others of his songs are fantastic, as are Singin’ Sammy Ward’s early blues numbers, like “Who’s The Fool.” I love Jr. Walker’s early instrumentals – “Mutiny,” with James Jamerson’s jazz bass solo, is astounding – Shorty Long, Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, and some of Little Stevie Wonder’s overlooked early outings. Los Angeles guitarist Arthur Adams’ “It’s Private Tonight,” which came out on Motown-distributed Chisa (it’s on the 1970 box), is the perfect marriage of blues and soul.
TDR: How detrimental do you think Berry Gordy’s favoritism toward Diana Ross was to the label? How much better would Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Kim Weston and Mary Wells have fared otherwise?
BD: It wasn’t detrimental in the slightest; the Supremes made some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s at a time when the British Invasion was otherwise dominating our charts, and Diana Ross had a coquettish mainstream appeal that none of the rest had. Mary Wells ruined her own career by walking away from Motown when she turned 21. Gladys Knight and the Pips were already stars when they arrived at Motown and far bigger ones when they left, though they got even hotter at Buddah. Kim Weston’s Motown career was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband, Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson, for both better and worse. And Martha Reeves and her Vandellas had a series of incredible hits, much like the Marvelettes, that made both groups long-term mainstays.
TDR: There has been some disagreement over Tammi Terrell’s involvement on the duet albums with Marvin Gaye that bear her name. Did she return to the studio after her collapse and is that her voice on those songs? What was (Motown songwriter) Valerie Simpson’s role in these recordings?
BD: It’s impossible to say for sure, since Valerie has never admitted any possible lead vocal involvement (Marvin Gaye’s biography stated such unequivocally, but I’d be less inclined to buy in). I doubt we’ll ever know one way or the other for sure, though Valerie’s role as co-producer and co-writer on many of them was so crucial that Tammi was no doubt channeling her vocal approach when she sang them (if indeed she was on the last couple hits).
TDR: The Complete Motown Singles Collection series ends in 1972. Why stop there? What is your favorite post-1972 Motown single or moment?
BD: That was the end of the Detroit era—the Golden Years—so it seems like a reasonable place to end it, though you’d have to ask my boss Harry Weinger (Vice President of A&R for Universal Music – ed.) there. I’m not sure I have too many post-1972 favorites—I’m very partial to the 1959-72 Motown era we’ve covered on the Complete Motown Singles series—but Gloria Jones, Yvonne Fair, Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison, and Jr. Walker’s “Peace, Love and Understanding” come to mind.
TDR: In your mind, what was the greatest single factor in the label’s decline? Was it the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the move to Los Angeles, Gordy’s interest in movies or something else?
BD: I don’t think we can accurately say Motown declined, since it’s still a going entity today and enjoyed a ton of hits after 1972. Times change and so do musical tastes, so keeping the same sound in 1972 that sold so well in the mid-‘60s would have been a recipe for disaster. Certainly HDH’s departure was a blow, but that gave other writers and producers more room to create their own soulful magic, like Norman Whitfield. The move to Los Angeles hurt the artists and musicians that chose to remain in the Motor City, and didn’t help the local economy either.
Mr. Gordy’s early ‘70s interest in the film industry made him a lot harder to reach on the phone at the time, much to the frustration of some staffers, but artistically it had a negligible effect since he wasn’t all that active musically by then anyway other than with the Jackson 5.
TDR: Ultimately, what do you feel is Motown’s greatest and most lasting impact on music today? Why?
BD: As the top indie label of the ‘60s, Motown turned the industry on its ear. There had been successful African-American owned record labels prior to Motown—Duke/Peacock, Fire/Fury, and Vee-Jay come to mind—but none were so monumentally successful. Gordy’s mantra of making R&B attuned to pop sensibilities had never been pulled off so convincingly. He also did a masterful job of delegating authority in the A&R department. It sounds like a cliché to say these classic recordings will never die, but they won’t.
TDR: Now that this project is over, what is your next venture? Are there any more Motown projects on the horizon?
BD: There are no Motown projects immediately scheduled, but I wrote the notes on Reel Music’s CD reissue of Jimmy Ruffin’s fine “Ruff ‘n Ready” Motown LP, complete with a fresh in-depth interview with the gracious Mr. Ruffin, which is just coming out.
I’m hoping and praying that Rhino Handmade finally releases the wonderful Wilson Pickett boxed set that it’s been sitting on for more than two years. A recent proclamation on the label’s website says it’s been scheduled. I wrote a huge track-by-track essay for it, much like the ones in the Motown boxes. It’s got everything he did for Atlantic on it and plenty more. Interestingly, the Funk Brothers played on Pickett’s first solo platters for Double L, a fact scantily documented before I started doing research for this box.
(Above: One of Blender’s classier covers, believe it or not.)
By Joel Francis
It was hard to muster any sympathy for Blender magazine when it was announced this week that the musical offshoot of Maxim the issue currently on newsstands will be its last.
Maxim rarely added anything of value to the musical discussion. Its biggest claim to fame was the steamy photos that adorned most covers. Inside, most of its coverage focused on musicians propped up by the hype machine. The magazine’s most reliable features were absurd lists (The 40 Worst Lyricists in Rock!), ridiculous features (Ask a Superstar) and product placements masquerading as articles (Lars Ulrich Reveals the Secrets Behind Guitar Hero Metallica).
If Maxim’s pandering approach is old news, then so is the reason for its demise: falling circulation. According to Alpha Media group, which bought Blender, Maxim and Stuff for $240 million in August 2007, paid subscriptions fell 8 percent in the past year while newsstand sales dropped 18 percent. Ad sales also suffered.
It would be easier to dismiss Blender’s demise if it weren’t happening to so many other magazines and newspapers as well. The Rocky Mountain News ceased publication in February; the Seattle Post-Intelligence went online only in March and Christian Science Monitor will follow suit in April. The News and Post-Intelligence had been around for 150 years, while the Monitor boasts over a century of history.
As newshounds and defenders of the Fourth Estate wonder how government and civic news will be reported during this dearth of outlets, music fans should ponder some of the same questions. In the past, magazines like Crawdaddy and Creem connected fans to the music they loved. Some, like Down Beat, Sing Out! and Rolling Stone are still around. Others, like Paste, Spin and Vibe, have more recently joined the fray.
But niche publications are not immune to industry trends. No Expression, which was to art what Blender was to cleavage, folded last year. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in the past 15 years, overall magazine readership has declined and the median reader age has risen.
Although more people are willing to write about music than would volunteer to cover a city council, planning commission or school board meeting, it is still disturbing to see the number of voices in the marketplace dwindle. Can we trust bloggers to provide accurate, impartial coverage of the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger, or the business woes and strategies of the major labels?
Music writing is more than album and concert reviews. Those are solitary experiences that only require some way to listen to music, taking notes and typing something up. True music journalism involves hitting the pavement, developing relationships with sources, forcing an interview and asking hard questions. Pazz and Jop polls, podcasts and running Motown commentaries are no substitute for this kind of reporting.
In other words, it’s one thing to know that the latest Radiohead album is amazing and that the tour is spectacular. It’s quite another to understand why the download costs $20 and the ticket “convenience fees” are 40 percent of face value (if you can find one the scalpers, er secondary market, hasn’t snatched up).
I’m not saying Blender performed or pretended to perform any of these functions. But when yet another outlet shuts down, it’s worth pondering the bigger questions.