Social Distancing Spins – Day 46

By Joel Francis

The weather is nice and cabin fever is real. Stay safe and keep the faith.

Brian Wilson – Reimagines Gershwin (2010) The opening minute of this album is an absolute dream. Layers of harmony vocals music fans have enjoyed for more than half a century cascade into the melody of the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The rest of the album isn’t quite as exquisite, but maintains the same premise: Two intimately familiar musical styles melting into something new. Wilson’s versions of “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or “I Got Rhythm” won’t make anyone forget about the legion of stellar interpretations that have come from Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Willie Nelson, to name but a few. But they do show how Gershwin’s pen was subconsciously at work in Pet Sounds, “Cabinessence” and “Surf’s Up.”

Rhett Miller – The Interpreter: Live at Largo (2011) In April, 2008, a few days after the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the men’s national basketball championship, my wife and I were in Los Angeles for vacation. I had heard about the club Largo over the years and was hoping to see their unofficial artist in residence, Jon Brion. The multi-instrumentalist wasn’t performing the when we were going to be there, so we happily grabbed tickets for Rhett Miller’s show instead. The Old 97s frontman was in a great mood, telling stories and playing some of his favorite songs by other people (and previewing material from the upcoming 97s album, Blame It On Gravity). About halfway through the set, Jon Brion took a seat behind the piano and the two banged out tunes like a pair of long-lost brothers. That night – and the following one, where Brion wasn’t present but Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago was – comprise the selections here on The Interpreter. Because I was there, it is impossible for me to grade this album objectively. It always takes me back to that night and makes me wish the full performance would be released on Nuggs or something similar. Your mileage may vary, but if you enjoy Miller’s voice and the songwriting of David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, you are definitely in the right place.

King Curtis – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West (1971)
Both of these landmark live albums are taken from the same run of shows at the historic San Francisco venue, where King Curtis and his Kingpins were backing the Queen of Soul. Franklin’s album has more contemporary rock covers than her better-known soul material. After marching through Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin manages to make Bread’s “Make It With You” engaging. Franklin starts cooking on the second side. After the slow blues “Dr. Feelgood,” Franklin and her incredible band – including Billy Preston on organ and the Memphis Horns – tear through “Spirit in the Dark.” As the song winds down after about five minutes, Ray Charles comes out and they do it all over again for another nine minutes.

Although less well-known, Curtis’ Fillmore album is just as incredible. Setting the table with “Memphis Soul Stew,” Curtis blasts through the Moody Blues’ “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and destroys Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The second side is just as good, with readings of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Unfortunately, this album also served as Curtis’ swan song. He was fatally stabbed outside his New York City apartment a week after it’s release.

In 2005, Rhino released a limited-edition collection of all three Fillmore shows in their entirety. Finally, fans could hear the music as it was presented each night, with Curtis opening the show, then Franklin coming out. This four-disc box set is definitely worth seeking out.

Jay-Z – American Gangster (2007) Sean Carter rolled into his alleged retirement – Did anyone really believe he was done? – on a hot streak. I confess to wondering if he could rise to the occasion on his inevitable comeback. And he didn’t – until American Gangster. Inspired by the Denzel Washington movie, Jay-Z played to his strengths and crafted 15 songs that revisit his oft-celebrated days as a drug dealer and Washington’s portrayal of black drug lord Frank Lucas. Though the album feels a couple songs too long to my ears, there isn’t a bad cut on the record. The long-awaited track with Nas lives up to the anticipation. American Gangster isn’t as good as The Blueprint or The Black Album, but it’s not far behind them either.

Two quick anecdotes before we move on. For a long time the downtown location of The Peanut hosted Hip Hop and Hot Wings on Sunday nights. (The Peanut has some of the best wings in Kansas City.) The fun usually started late and lasted later, which made for a rough Monday so I never got to attend as often as I wanted. About a month after American Gangster came out, around Christmas time, one of the DJs dropped the needle on “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” and the entire room exploded like a grenade had gone off. Strangers were high-fiving and everyone was signing along and dancing. “Roc Boys” got bonus local points for featuring Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in the video.

Alright, the second story. On the same vacation in Los Angeles that I discussed in the Rhett Miller entry, my wife and I had tickets to see Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige at the Hollywood Bowl. Despite leaving hours early, we got there just in time to hear the opening song (all the traffic was between the exit and the parking lot). Jay-Z was touring in support of American Gangster and it was incredible to hear those songs in person, with a huge band backing him up. MJB was a solid bonus for the evening.

William Onyeabor – Who Is William Onyeabor? (compilation) Even though this collection spans three LPs and 13 tracks, by the end we are nowhere closer to knowing the answer about William Onyeabor than when we started. According to internet reports, the Nigerian producer self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, which were quickly bootlegged. It is not hard to see why so many people would want this music. It’s primitive electronics – clunky drum machines and Casio keyboards – married to Afro-beat rhythms, with a little P-Funk stirred into the sauce for good measure. Who is William Onyeabor? Well for the 75 minutes of this album he’s a fillpin’ musical savant. That’s who.

Various Artists – Red Hot + Riot (2002) The Red Hot charity albums have generally been pretty good, but this one, honoring Afro beat legend Fela Kuti, stands above the rest. For one, it features some of the top socially conscious/backpack rappers of the time: Blackalicious, Talib Kweli, Common and Dead Prez. Plus a mix of great soul singers, including D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Kelis and Sade. Finally, a sprinkling of jazz legends (Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove), African musicians, Kuti’s son Femi Kuti and bluesman Taj Mahal. If this roll call doesn’t pique your interest, trust me, the result is even more impressive. Rap, jazz, blues, soul and gospel all flow into a river leading back to Mother Africa. Can you dig it?

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

(Above: Solomon Burke takes a mid-day festival crowd to church with “If You Need Me.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Soul legend Solomon Burke died Sunday at an airport in Amsterdam. The 70-year old singer was best known for 1960s soul classics such as “Got To Get You Off My Mind” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett and the Blues Brothers.

Although he made his name in the ‘60s, Burke released several stunning albums in the last decade of his life. His 2002 comeback “Don’t Give Up On Me” featured songs written specifically for him by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe. In 2006, Buddy Miller helmed “Nashville,” an Americana-themed album featuring support from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. 2005’s “Make Do With What You Got” is another crucial piece of Burke’s renaissance.

I never got to see Burke perform. In fact, unless I missed him at the old Blues and Jazz Fest, I can’t recall him even stopping in Kansas City in the last 15 years. I always hoped Bill Shapiro would be able to book him for one of his excellent Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly series. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while I missed out, thousands of fans around the world were able to enjoy the king of rock and soul up close. Writer Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to Burke in his classic 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty has been written about Burke’s musical legacy; the following recollections from the book spotlight Burke’s colorful personality.

 

Burke during his glory days.

 

Burke was signed to Atlantic Records in 1961, in part to fill the hole that had been left when Ray Charles departed for ABC. Burke had, Guralnick wrote, “a combination of Sam Cooke at his mellifluous best and Ray Charles at his deep-down and funkiest, an improbable mix of sincerity, dramatic artifice, bubbling good humor, multitextured vocal artistry.”

Music was Burke’s love, but he always had a little something extra going on the side. Before signing to Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based singer struggled to bridge the gap between gospel and something bigger. When his first independent singles didn’t perform to expectation, he briefly left the music business to become a mortician, a skill he never completely abandoned. During an early Atlantic recording session, he begged out early to return to Philadelphia where he worked a snow-removal job for $3.50 an hour.

The ability – and willingness – to deliver a wide range of musical styles, from country to soul to gospel, not only made Burke a nationwide star, but disguised his race in a still very-segregated landscape. In “Sweet Soul Music” Burke described a Friday night gig in Mississippi that looked like a dream.

“They had those big flatbed trucks with the loudspeakers hooked up, and the black people was just bringing us fried chicken and ribs,” Burke recalled. “Oh, my God, they got corn on the cob, they making cakes and pies, they got hot bread, barbecued ribs …. Oh, man, I can’t begin to tell you – it looked like the festival of the year!”

Before the band went on, the sheriff instructed them when to take the stage and end their set, and promised protection and an escort back to the highway. When the band went onstage at the appointed time Burke noticed odd lights in the distance.

“All the way as far as your eye could see was lights, like people holding a blowtorch, coming, they was just coming slowly, they was coming toward the stage,” Burke said. “They got closer and closer. Man, they was 30,000 Ku Klux Klanners in their sheets – it was their annual rally. The whole time we played we played that show those people kept coming. With their sheets on. Little kids with little sheets, ladies, man, everybody just coming up, just moving under the lights, everyone dancing and having a good time.”

True his word, the sheriff made sure there was no trouble, and the band departed unscathed – not that they lingered any longer than necessary.

In 1964, radio station WEBB in Baltimore crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Burke took the title seriously and began performing from a thrown and wearing a crown. It was his royal cape, however, that caused the biggest problem.

 

If you haven't read Peter Guralnick's wonderful book, you are missing out.

 

The other reigning king of R&B had featured a cape in his shows for some time, and James Brown took offense to what he considered Burke’s stealing part of the act. The feud came to a head when Brown hired Burke to open in Chicago for $10,000. That was good money for a one-night stand in the early ‘60s, made even better when Burke was told he could use the James Brown Orchestra, saving his own band expenses.

Shortly before show time, Brown’s assistant met with Burke, ensuring Burke had his throne, red carpet, robe and crown all ready to go. Burke confirmed he was ready to go. When it was time to go on, Burke was standing in the wings in full regalia as the introduction started – only the emcee introduced Brown instead.

“James came on with his cape, dancing on the carpet. That was funny, man,” Burke said. “He says, ‘Your job, just watch me. Watch the real king.’”

At one point in the show, Brown asked Burke to come onstage and place his crown on Brown’s head. Even though he never performed, the crowd chanted Burke’s name all night.

“(Brown) says ‘Solomon Burke cannot perform because he’s been decrowned,’” Burke said. “I never did find out what ‘decrowned’ meant. But it was, as I say, very amusing.”

It was also an easy way to pick up ten grand. After the show Burke told Brown he’d be willing to do the whole thing over again the next night for a discounted price of $8,000. It was a generous gesture for Burke, who while not exactly cheap, recognized – like Brown – the value of making a buck.

For example, he frequently traveled with a mini convenience store of sandwiches, orange juice, tomato juice and ice water. As the odometer turned on the tour bus, so increased the price of Burke’s goods. Otis Redding’s brother Rodgers Redding remembers one tour with Burke.

“(Burke) always carried stuff like ice water, cookies, candy, gum; even though he didn’t drink at all, you’d go into his room at the hotel and see all this, Courvoisier, different kinds of wine, the whole room would be full of booze. He’d have a hot plate, frying pan, flowers, roses, everything, just for his guests, whoever would come by.

“I remember one tour,” Redding continued, “Solomon was selling his ice water for ten cents, sandwiches for a dollar – everybody just laughed at him. By the time they got halfway there, he was selling that water for a dollar, sandwiches for $7.50!”

Jim Crow laws in the South had given Burke a captive marketplace, but also provided a generous audience in each town. Burke taught his band never to eat out after a gig – the little old ladies would always provide a nicer meal for free in their home than they could imagine at a restaurant. Sometimes they offered more.

“Them old ladies would come out with their biscuits and fresh-baked pies, they’d say ‘Here’s some fresh milk for you, son, just be sure and bring back my thermos.’ Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, ham hocks, collard greens, man it was great,” Burke said. “Then them old ladies would say, ‘Son, would you drive my granddaughter out to the main highway? Don’t you worry none, she can find her own way back.’”

Every facet of Burke’s personality converged when he played the Apollo Theater at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. Playing the famed theater was a dream for most performers, but Burke, as always, wanted a little something extra. He had language included in his contract that gave him control of the theater’s concessions that night. Known for strolling the aisles at intermission and hawking wares, this is what the theater owners thought they were agreeing to. Burke, however, had other plans.

 

The king of Rock and Soul on his throne.

 

Bobby Schiffman, brother of Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, picked up the story in his other brother Jack Schiffman’s book “Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

“Solomon arrived … with a cooker on which he fried pork chops to sell the gang backstage, and a carton of candy,” Schiffman said. “I decided to humor him – until the truck pulled up.”

It seems Burke had recently bought into a chain of drugstores and had an abundance of popcorn. He had taken to hauling a trailer of the stuff around to his shows and passing it out. So when the Apollo deal was struck, Burke thought he had the perfect means of ridding himself of the overstocked kernels.

“I had about 10,000 stickers printed up to go on the boxes of popcorn saying, ‘Thank you for coming to the Apollo Theater from Solomon Burke, Atlantic Records Recording Artist. Your Box of Soul Popcorn,’” Burke told Guralnick.

After nearly giving the Schiffman family a collective heart attack, the two parties hastily renegotiated. In Burke’s version of the story, he agreed to take a loss on the rest of his food and cede concessions back to the theater provided he could still distribute the popcorn. In Bobby Schiffman’s version the family bought the popcorn off Burke for $50,000 provided he not sell anything else in the theater that night.

“That’s been my problem my whole life in entertainment: I utilize my educational background and maybe that makes me a little too smart for my britches,” Burke said. “They assumed my intelligence was limited, that my ability to supply a demand was limited. I wasn’t even thinking about singing that week. My biggest shot was: get rid of that popcorn. But it was the greatest publicity thing that I ever did.”

Keep reading:

Talking King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

Swingin’ on Sesame Street

sesamestreet220

As “Sesame Street” celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, The Daily Record examines five of the show’s greatest musical moments.

Johnny Cash – “Nasty Dan”

Twenty years after “Cry Cry Cry” appeared in jukeboxes, Johnny Cash was singing with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. “Nasty Dan” appears on the classic 1975 record “The Johnny Cash Children’s Album,” but Oscar is the perfect foil for the number. Cash enjoyed his fifth season spin on the Street so much, he returned to Jim Henson’s world of Muppets. In 1980, Cash hosted an episode of The Muppet Show. Cash was also the inspiration behind the 1990s Sesame Street character Ronnie Trash, who sang about the environment in Cash’s classic boom-chicka style.

The Fugees “Just Happy To Be Me”

The Fugees immortal sophomore album “The Score” was one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s, but it wasn’t exactly kid-friendly material. Somehow, though, the divisive Elmo took a shine to the group and invited the trio to appear in his 1998 TV special. Although “Ready or Not” could have been adapted to a song about playing hide-and-seek, the Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean opted to cover a newer song in the Sesame Street canon, “Just Happy To Be Me.” Jean has returned to the Street several times since, but Hill and Michel are perpetually M.I.A. This once prompted Snuffleupagus to hollar “Where Fugees at?”

Stevie Wonder – “1,2,3 Sesame Street

Stevie Wonder between albums and at arguably at the peak of his career when he appeared on the Sesame Street in 1973. In a rare Sesame Street-Soul Train crossover moment, Wonder and his full band performed his recent hit “Superstition.” He then returned with the original number “1,2,3 Sesame Street,” starting a new talk box fad at kindergarteners across the country.

Itzhak Pearlman – Easy and Hard

This isn’t as much a song as a lesson with the greatest classical violinist of his generation. Itzhak Pearlman was no stranger to Sesame Street when he appeared in this 1981 clip. Polio is all but forgotten today, but the message on disabilities and talent still rings true.

Cab Calloway – “Mr. Hi De Ho Man”

Cab Calloway earned the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man” after his signature song, “Minnie the Moocher” became a hit in 1931. Half a century later, Calloway converted his handle to a greeting and performed on Sesame Street with the perpetually contradictive Two-Headed Monster. Calloway’s guest spot occurred during a late career resurgence. After spending almost a decade as a has-been, Calloway was back in the spotlight, thanks to his role in “The Blues Brothers” film. The movie was directed and co-written by John Landis, who was good friends with Muppeteer Frank Oz. Oz, who voiced Grover, Bert and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Yoda, appears as the guard who returns Joliet Jake’s belongings at the beginning of “The Blues Brothers.”

Ray Charles – “The Alphabet”

This bonus clip is from Ray Charles’ second stop on the Street in 1977. Although he’s just singing the alphabet, there are few artists who could make 26 letters swing so hard.

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

(Above: Richard “Popcorn” Wylie’s version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” is one of music writer Bill Dahl’s favorite early Motown songs.)

By Joel Francis

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.

Keep reading:

Music essays and reviews by Bill Dahl

More features and interviews on The Daily Record:

Former NBA player at home in KC music scene

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Modest Mouse: Johnny Strikes Up the Band

Hail Death Cab

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Out of the Tar Pit Back Onto the Stage

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Down on “Cypress Avenue”

Jamie Foxx brings it to Sprint Center on Saturday

(Above: One of the few Jamie Foxx videos on Youtube that his label allows to be shared.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Three days after Michael Jackson’s death, Jamie Foxx appeared as host of the BET Awards clad in a red leather, Thriller-era jacket and sequined glove. After performing “Beat It” and telling a few jokes about Jackson’s ever-changing nose, Foxx paid tribute to the fallen icon by moonwalking across the stage.

And when Foxx performs a concert at the Sprint Center on Saturday, Jackson again will have his moment.

“We definitely do a Michael Jackson moment at our shows and let his music play,” Foxx said in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the media’s Michael Jackson coverage has become a circus. We try to concentrate on what he gave us — his music.”

After walking the tightrope of poking fun at Jackson without offending, Foxx closed out the BET Awards with a duet of “I’ll Be There” with Ne-Yo. After the pair finished, Jackson’s sister Janet and father, Joe, came out and thanked everyone for their support.

“My job that night was to keep things light, keep things fun,” Foxx said. “Having the family there was tough, because I wanted to be respectful and I knew Janet was going to come out at the end. I have to commend BET, though. They had to do an awards show when the biggest entertainer in the world passes away. With very little money and very little time, they completely turned the show around.”

When Foxx last played Kansas City at the Music Hall in March, 2007, he was best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles and parodying that character on the hit single “Gold Digger” with Kanye West. For this tour, Foxx has the success and chops under his belt to prove that he’s not just another actor living out a fantasy as a musician.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since the last tour is that you should go out while your record is hot, not wait two years,” Foxx said, remembering his 2005 hit “Unpredictable,” which he didn’t promote until 2007. “Right now, this very moment, ‘Blame It’ is still rolling (on the charts). It’s sizzling.”

When Stevie Wonder played Starlight Theatre recently, he stopped the show for a few minutes to have the soundman pump his favorite song this year through the PA. Within moments, the crowd that had been grooving to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Living for the City” was grinding to Foxx’s “Blame It.”

Even without the endorsements, “Blame It” is one of the unofficial songs of the summer. It topped the Urban Contemporary charts for 12 consecutive weeks and as of mid-July it had been in the Top 40 for 26 weeks.

Like many of the previous summertime hits, “Blame It” gets a boost from the ubiquitous T-Pain. He won’t be at the Sprint Center, but Foxx said audiences won’t miss T-Pain or any of the other artists that appear on his albums.

“For those songs with features, I have guys who sing those parts, so we don’t miss a step,” Foxx said. “My back-up singer does a great job performing T-Pain’s part. It’s a lot of fun, but it also taught me another lesson: Don’t lean on your features too heavily when recording, so you can still do them alone on tour.”

Before Foxx was an Oscar-winning actor or a comedian on “In Living Color” and “Def Comedy Jam,” he was a musician. Foxx started taking piano lessons at age 5 and released his first album in 1994. It took 11 years and an appearance on Twista’s “Slow Jamz” — again with West — before Foxx released a follow-up album.

When he began performing as a musician on the big stage, Foxx drew on his experiences as an actor and comedian.

“Through playing live I learned how to pace myself,” Foxx said. “I learned I could take my time with a slow song. As a comedian, I am always looking for a reaction. But when you sing a slow song, you don’t need an immediate reaction. Sometimes people want to take it all in before they respond. I don’t need to go all over the stage to make sure they like it.”

Whatever the tempo, Foxx pulls on his acting background and treats each song as if he’s playing a character. Upbeat songs get a character who knows how to party and have fun, Foxx said.

“When it’s time for slower music, I change clothes and put on a suit,” he said. “For ‘Blame It,’ I wear a sparkly jacket, because that’s what I felt that character would wear. Everything’s always a character.”

Foxx appeared as a different kind of musician earlier this year. In the movie “The Soloist,” he portrayed a homeless, schizophrenic, classically trained cellist. Don’t look for that character to appear onstage.

“No more cello for me,” Foxx said. “I just play piano.”


the show
Jamie Foxx and his 50-city “Intuition Tour” come to Kansas City at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sprint Center. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $59.75 and $69.75 at www.ticketmaster.com.

Stevie Wonder – “Uptight (Everything Is Alright)”

uptight

Stevie Wonder – “Uptight (Everything Is Alright),” Pop #3, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Nearly two years after success of “Fingertips,” Little Stevie finally found a follow-up hit – just in the nick of time. Motown had just about given up on him. Never mind that Wonder hadn’t been given much to work with: an album of Ray Charles covers, the “Fingertips” knock-off “Workout Stevie” and corny kids songs like “Happy Street” and “Hey Harmonica Man.” His dry spell was compounded by the fact that his voice was starting to change. Motown producers were wary of working with the onetime boy wonder, but Clarence Paul, who had acted as a mentor and father figure to the boy since his 1961 signing, liked his protégé’s newfound tenor.

The only thing uptight about this number is its title. The melody is fun, free and fresh. From the signature horn fanfare to the delight in Wonder’s voice, there are smiles all around. Every week Berry Gordy used to run each prospective single through a quality assurance committee who would vote on which numbers were released. The idea was a holdover from Gordy’s days on the assembly line. It’s hard to picture anyone not voting for this upbeat tune. I like to imagine that a spontaneous dance session broke out when it was played.

Once the song broke, everything was alright in Wonder’s world. Success may have been an early struggle, but it flowed effortlessly after this. With three exceptions, Wonder had at least one Top 10 hit per year from 1965 to 1985.

The Music of James Bond: Part One – The Classic Years


Above: Johnny Cash’s alternate version of “Thunderball.”

By Joel Francis

After nearly 50 years of slugging spies and bedding beauties, the premier of a James Bond movie has become an cultural event. The opening credit sequences of these films are events among themselves. Even though some of the biggest names in rock have performed a Bond theme song, the producers have always treated the number as a throwback to the Broadway and pop numbers of the 1950s.

When Bond made his big screen debut in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” variants of “The Twist” and the Four Seasons topped the Billboard charts. The theme song for “Dr. No” was a bizarre calypso arrangement of “Three Blind Mice.” Thankfully, the nursery rhyme is preceded by Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond theme. Norman’s theme was reinterpreted in every Bond film thereafter. It’s still exciting to hear the surf guitar race into the explosion of horns. The song is over-the-top, suspenseful and dangerous, but the swinging drums winkingly confide in the viewer that everything is in good fun.

Bond was back the following year with “From Russia With Love.” This time, producers hired Broadway songsmith Lionel Bart, best known for his work on “Oliver!,” to write an original theme song. Bart’s lyrics, coupled with soundtrack composer John Barry’s music, are the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image. Singer Matt Monro made his name performing in the nightclubs, caberets and lounges Bond would have haunted offscreen. Their lounge music is the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image that reeks of wood paneling, shag carpeting, hi-fi stereos and rotating beds. In other words, it’s straight out of Bond’s world.

Three-time Bond songstress Shirley Bassey made her debut with “Goldfinger.” Although the film hit screens during the year of Beatlemania, there is no hint of rock and roll in the title song written by the musical theater team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Barry’s bombastic horns are matched only by Bassey’s brassy delivery. “Goldfinger” is not only one of the most memorable Bond songs of all time, but it’s also the first memorable Bond song.

Barry and Bricusse didn’t stray far from the template when they approached Tom Jones to sing “Thunderball.” Jones puts his pelvis in the delivery, but the arrangement is essentially “Goldfinger”-redux. While they may have been working with a formula, it’s a strong one – “Thunderball” works nearly as well as “Goldfinger.”

An alternate “Thunderball” song was given to Johnny Cash to perform, but rejeced by the film’s producers. It seems even at the peak of his pills phase, Cash was more man than Bond could handle.

Rock and roll finally appeared in the serpentine guitar lick that opens Nancy Sinatra’s performance of “You Only Live Twice.” Even with the guitar, Sinatra’s sexy vocals rest on a pillow of strings accentuated by a harp. The number was Barry and Bricusse’s third consecutive teaming, and constructed from fragments of 25 separate takes. Bassey must have felt left out, because she covered the song in 2007, following in the footsteps of Coldplay, Bjork and Robbie Williams (who sampled the original for “Millennium”).

 “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a misfit in the Bond cannon, musically and theatrically. The title sequence is a throwback to the orchestral opening of “Dr. No.” Barry’s instrumental theme is notable for its deep Moog synthesizer notes, chugging rock bass and the soaring trombone melody, later taken over on trumpet. Barry, who scored every Bond film to this point, composed a great alternate to Norman’s original Bond theme. During the mid-’90s electronic craze, the Propellerheads created a 10-minute remix of the song.

Barry teamed with Burt Bacharach’s lyricist Hal David to write the film’s love theme, “All The Time in the World.” Saturated by fingerpicked guitar and a saccharine string section, the song couldn’t be further from jazz, despite the vocals of Louis Armstrong. Satchmo is in full-on “What A Wonderful World” mode. Lesser singers would buckle under the weight of the arrangement, but Armstrong is able to emote the lyrics perfectly, even if someone else is playing the trumpet solo.

As the calendar flipped to the 1970s, Bassey was given her second stint on a Bond theme. “Diamonds Are Forever” is the sexiest Bond theme since Sinatra’s. Barry’s arrangement is full of the soft strings and horn punctuations that viewers had come to expect, but he tosses in an unexpected splash of funk at the halfway point. The wah wah guitar and subtle nod to Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft” could be what drew Kanye West to the song when he sampled it for his 2005 hit “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.”

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond