iPod shuffles expectations

(The iPod has come a long way since its introduction in Oct., 2001. What has commercial radio done over that period?)

By Joel Francis

The Daily Record’s two-week experiment ended yesterday. For the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to myiPod on all-song shuffle, dedicated to penetrating 10 percent of my 12,226-tune pocket library. The journey was not only a blast, but it’s also been very revelatory. Songs sound different when they arrive unannounced and stripped of all context.

At first blush, the Futureheads sound a lot like the Jam, and “Mystery Title” from Robert Plant’s “Pictures At Eleven” doesn’t sound that different from what Zeppelin were going for on “In Through the Out Door.” To these ears, Mavis Staples’ 2008 album “Hope: Live at the Hideout” paled in comparison with its studio counterpart “Down In Mississippi,” and Staples’ energetic stop at the Folly Theater on that tour. But “The Hideout”‘s “Freedom Highway” blew me away when it popped up.

The Nine Inch Nails track “Zero-Sum” sounded like something Peter Gabriel would have placed on “Security.” The shuffle rescuedthe magnificient “I’m A Lady” from its burial deep in the second half of Santogold’s album. Heck, even a Ghostface Killah’s comedy sketch managed to evoke a chuckle when it popped up between Dinosaur Jr and Billie Holiday.

Not to sound too much like a fuddy-duddy, but there are a lot of aspects of the old music paradigm that I miss. Record Store Day is a great new tradition, but it can’t compete with the rush and anticipation of New Release Tuesdays. I also miss the days when radio would actually turn me on to good music and artists. None my or my friends’ automobiles in high school and college had CD players, so we relied on the radio for entertainment. It wasn’t perfect – Kansas City still had way too much classic rock clogging the airways – but when you haven’t yet heard “Frankenstein” a million times, it didn’t seem so bad. We tried to sing the “woo-woos” all the way through “Sympathy for the Devil” (impossible) and memorize the lyrics to “American Pie” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” (Check and check. Also, sadly, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

I didn’t need to know anything about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to notice that radio started to suck that year. Eventually, though, we graduated and got better cars. I made sure mine had a CD player and turned my back completely on commercial radio. I have yet to find a compelling reason to go back. And while my iPod only reveals what I put into it, it’s nice to know there are still hundreds of treasures waiting to be revealed. Now if only I could figure out how to be the ninth caller and win that T-shirt.

Little Arkansas Rocks

(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.

The Temptations – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”

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The Temptations – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Pop #13, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

If you’re not hooked in the first five seconds of this song, you haven’t been paying attention. All the elements attack immediately: the drum roll coupled with the insistent clanging cymbal, the knuckle-roll piano riff and, of course, David Ruffin’s raspy vocal. The stinging staccato guitar that shows up later in the initial verse is a direct homage to James Brown. Throw in the glorious backing vocals from the rest of the Temptations and a stellar horn line and you’ve got not only an incredible song, but a definitive snapshot of Motown in full glory.

“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” would be no less a masterpiece if the story stopped there, but remarkably the song almost didn’t get made.

After a few of Smokey Robinson’s productions for the Temps failed to take hold on the charts, hotshot Norman Whitfield wanted the chance to sit behind the boards with the group. Whitfield was a long shot to topple Robinson’s incumbency, but Whitfield thought he had a number that could give him control. Enlisting songwriting help from Edward Holland, Jr. of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, Whitfield had the Funk Brothers lay down the backing track to one of Motown’s funkiest numbers to date. The Temptations then added their vocals and Whitfield submitted the single to be auditioned at the Motown Quality Control meeting.

Quality Control meetings were the result of Berry Gordy’s days on the Detroit assembly line. Each week, the label’s top creative minds would meet, listen to music and decide what should be released. Surprisingly, “Ain’t To Proud To Beg” didn’t make the cut. It didn’t make the cut the second week, either. Politics could have been at play – Robinson and Gordy were so close that Robinson named his son Berry – but Gordy asserted that the number simply needed more work.

So Whitfield went back into the studio and moved the melody for the vocal line just out of Ruffin’s range. The straining singer’s vocals added the needed muscle and desperation to the song, and the number was once again submitted to Quality Control.

This time, however, the song had unexpected competition in the form of “Get Ready,” a Temptations number Robinson had written and produced for the band. Since Robinson was the Temps’ established producer “Get Ready” went out while “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” stayed on the shelf. Whitfield was so upset that Gordy promised him “Beg” would be the next single if “Get Ready” failed to reach the pop Top 20.

Gordy kept his word and the song was finally released in May, 1966, eventually reaching No. 1 on the R&B charts. When Whitfield found success with the Temptations following two singles he was instated as the group’s main producer, a role he guarded fiercely until 1974.

Around the same time Whitfield was leaving Motown and the Temptations to form his own record label, the Rolling Stones found No. 17 pop hit with their cover. Through the years, the number has also yielded interpretations by Ben Harper, the Count Basie Orchestra and, even more strangely, Rick Astley, who also made it a Top 20 hit (albeit on the Adult Contemporary charts) in 1988.

Flaming Lips deserve Super Bowl halftime show

(Above: Picture this on the 50-yard line: the Flaming Lips, “Race for the Prize.”)

By Joel Francis

The five years since Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” two things are clear: Nipple shields have not become the must-have fashion accessory everyone predicted; and halftime shows have never been better.

It would be easy to get tired of all the blue-chip baby boomer performers if they didn’t put on such compelling shows. The Rolling Stones abysmal 2006 act aside, it doesn’t get much better than hearing “Drive My Car” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” at halftime. Yeah, they’ve been done to death, but they’re a lot better than whatever song Janet and Justin Timberlake were singing and Aerosmith’s pairing with Britney Spears. Does anyone remember those songs today?

Even fans tired of the oldies can’t argue with the energy that propelled Prince’s set in 2006 and Bruce Springsteen’s show last night into the top echelon of pop music performances.

Which is exactly why it’s time to change things up. The canary is choking; there’s not much more ore in the vein the NFL has mined these past five years. Let’s stop now, before Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles are serenading us with mid-game naps. It’s time to take the halftime show in a new direction. A direction hinted at in 2002 when U2 were brought in to play: dynamic bands that can connect with a huge audience, playing high-energy hits written within 20 years of their performance.

The Flaming Lips are the perfect band to open this new era. Imagine frontman Wayne Coyne rolling over the crowd in his giant hamster ball as “Race For the Prize” blasts through the stadium. Lasers penetrate the clouds of smoke as confetti, streamers and balloons rain on the crowd. Did we mention the Lips also come with their own space aliens and super heroes? Oh, and a flying saucer?

In their 25-year history, the Lips have twice rocked the massive crowds at Bonnarro and will have no problem connecting to the fans in the upper deck or on the couch. Their songs may not be as universally known as “American Girl,” but “She Don’t Use Jelly” was an MTV staple big enough to land the band on “Beverly Hills 90210.” And the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” will have as many people signing along as the outro of “Hey Jude.” The biggest obstacle will be cleaning up all the joyous debris on the field (lay down a tarp) and getting everyone to settle down enough to concentrate on the resumed game.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Blues Brothers (minus John Belushi) and Miami Sound Machine were given center-stage at the world’s biggest intermission. But there is a midway point between dinosaur bands and Top 40 vapidity. Once the Flaming Lips remind the audience of this territory, bands like the Foo Fighters, Arcade Fire and Robert Randolph and the Family Band are perfect future candidates.

Inoffensive doesn’t have to be the antonym of adventure. The Flaming Lips are the embodiment of the party atmosphere the NFL wants the Super Bowl to inhabit. It’s time to let them take the stage. Book them for 2010.

Read The Daily Record’s coverage of the Flaming Lips at Wakarusa in 2006 and 2008.

Remembering Ron Asheton of The Stooges

(Above: The Stooges do “1969” in 2007.)

By Joel Francis

When Ron Asheton started playing electric guitar in the mid-’60s, there were no signs pointing the way he wanted to go. The Beatles were just starting to experiment with feedback and backwards instrumentation on their albums; Pink Floyd was buried in the London underground and Andy Warhol had yet to champion the Velvet Underground (not that many were paying attention anyhow).

The closest things to the sounds in his head were Pete Townshend’s guitar riff on The Who’s “My Generation,” the surf guitar instrumentals of Dick Dale and the dirty blues of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.

By the time Asheton, his brother Scott, and their longtime friend Dave Alexander hooked up with fellow Ann Arbor, Mich. musician Jim Osterberg there were a few more road signs. Home state natives the MC5 had kicked out their jams, and the free jazz freak-outs of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were regularly released on the Impulse label. But there still weren’t many fellow travelers on the Asheton brothers’ weird road during the Summer of Love. Osterberg, who would soon call himself Iggy Pop, was one hitchhiker they had to pick up.

Four years later, it was mostly over. In retrospect, it’s amazing the band lasted that long. The Stooges two albums, released in 1969 and 1970, were rawer than razor burn, more violent than the 1968 Democratic Convention and as combustible as the Hindenburg. When it was over, Asheton’s guitar work pointed the way that nearly every guitarist since has followed, or at lease acknowledged.

It’s difficult to imagine the furious stomp of the White Stripes and the six-string perversions of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr without the expanded palette Asheton created. The Sex Pistols and the Damned both covered “No Fun” in concert. Heck, the blueprint of the grunge movement was mostly hijacked from the Stooges’ designs.

Of course David Bowie prodded the Stooges to reconvene in 1973 for “Raw Power,” but it wasn’t the same. Iggy’s name was out front and Asheton was confined to the bass guitar by Ig’s new best bud, James Williamson. There was even a piano player! Asheton’s rightful place on lead guitar was restored when the Stooges reunited a generation later for a couple guest shots on Iggy’s solo album, an R.L. Burnside tribute and, finally, an album of their own, but by then they were no longer leaders.

Ron Asheton’s name rarely comes up in “Guitar God” discussions. The music he made nearly 40 years ago remains difficult to assimilate by mainstream tastes. And like his long-overdue adulation, it took people a while to figure out he was gone. Six days after dying from a heart attack, Asheton’s body was discovered in his Ann Arbor apartment.

There was no obituary in the New York Times and little mention on the 24-hour news channels, but somewhere in heaven a white cloud is tarnished with soot and Asheton’s scary noise is driving the harp-plucking cherubs out of their minds. Which is as it should be.

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Three): The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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Above: No, it’s not Beyonce. The wonderful Etta James during her Chess period.

By Joel Francis

As the 1960s dawned on Chess Records, label founders Leonard and Phil were at the peak of their powers. Thanks to the proselytizing of the British Invasion bands, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and other blues artists were performing for the largest crowds of their careers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had helped formed rock and roll, and the label had branched into more genres, including R&B, comedy, jazz and gospel.

But Leonard and Phil were still looking for new ways to stay on top of the trends and build their roster. One of their biggest signings of the decade was an immediate success. The other took more than three decades to reach his commercial potential, but stands today as the greatest living link to Chess and Chicago blues.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles to an unwed, 14-year-old mother. She was discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, and recorded with him for Modern Records in the late 1950s. She signed to Chess in 1960 and converted Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” into an R&B hit. Her breakthrough came the following year with “At Last.” The gorgeous soul ballad was a bit of a departure for the label – guitars and harmonicas were replaced by a lush string orchestra. From the gritty soul of “In the Basement” and “Tell Mama” to the heartache of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ versatile voice found success for the rest of the decade.

Buddy Guy showed up in Chicago in 1957 and quickly fell under the wing of Muddy Waters. Although he was known for his anarchic guitar playing onstage, the Chess brothers reigned him in on record. Primarily a session guitarist, solo singles like “The First Time I Met the Blues” barely hinted at the flamboyant style that influenced Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Guy didn’t find true success until his 1991 comeback album “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” on the Silvertone label.

With the exception of Berry, who briefly recorded for Mercury in the mid-’60s before returning to Chess, and Dixon, who took a short-lived job at Vee-Jay, all of Chess’ major artists stayed with the label until its sale. By the end of the ’60s, Leonard and Phil had been looking for a way to get out of the record business and into television. When GRT made an offer of $6.5 million for all of the label’s properties, they accepted. Less than a year after selling their label, Leonard Chess was dead. Just 52 years old, the elder brother had died of a heart attack in his car less than two blocks from the Chess headquarters. He had been on his way to a meeting at WVON.

A little over twenty years after opening the Mocambo Lounge, Leonard and Phil Chess’ dream of striking it rich had come true several times over. With Leonard no longer alive, it was up to Phil and Marshall, Leonard’s son, to appease the worries from their biggest stars that the brothers had made unreasonable profits off their artists.

While many of the Chess stars were also very well off, other artists showed less financial responsibility and had very little to show for their success. In the 1970s, several Chess artists, including Waters, Wolf and Dixon sued for back royalty payments. All the lawsuits were settled confidentially out of court; the issue is still debated today. Bo Diddley was especially bitter about his treatment, telling Rolling Stone in the 1987, “My records are sold all over the world and I ain’t got a f—ing dime.” While we’ll likely never know the truth, cases of labels withholding royalties from artists are still common today. Leonard and Phil probably felt they took good care of their artists, but they also made sure to take great care of themselves at the same time.

Nearly 40 years after its sale, the legacy of Chess Records continues to burn bright. From bloozy biker bars and hole-in-the-wall BBQ juke joints to stadium tours by the Rolling Stones and samples used by rappers Nas and Chuck D, there are few corners of the English-speaking world where the impact of Chess’ artists isn’t felt. In 1977 NASA gave the label celestial influence when they placed a copy Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” inside the Voyager space probe.

In 1964 the Rolling Stones, hot on their first tour of America, made a pilgrimage to the Chess building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Decades later, Dixon’s widow purchased the property, which serves as a Chess museum and headquarters for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Each year, tourists and musicians alike visit the building to pay homage to the Chess masters and stand in the space where so many incredible songs were captured.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and Chicago Blues
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

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

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

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

The Temptations – “My Girl”


The Temptations – “My Girl,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis

Lightning definitely struck twice for Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. After struggling for years, Robinson gave the Temptations their breakthrough hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” “My Girl,” their follow-up, is not only Motown’s biggest song, but one of the biggest soul numbers of all time.

Inspired by his wife Claudette, Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote the one of the greatest Valentines of all time as an answer song to their previous hit “My Guy.” Bob Dylan may have been thinking of the lyric “I’ve got so much honey/the bees envy me” when he proclaimed Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” in 1965.

David Ruffin made his lead vocal debut delivering these deceptively simple lyrics. Though it seems a no-brainer in retrospect, the decision was controversial at the time. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had shared the lead role prior to this song, and, to make matters worse, Ruffin was a ringer who replaced original Temptation Al Bryant. Ruffin got the nod after Robinson saw him singing “Under the Boardwalk” as part of their Motown Revue repertoire, and quickly became the group’s featured singer.

The Motown string section furthers Ruffin’s references to sunshine and fluttering birds, while Funk Brother James Jamerson’s signature two-note bass line anchors the entire performance.

It’s unclear why Robinson and White didn’t keep their song for The Miracles, but it didn’t take long for other acts to put their stamp on the number. Otis Redding added some blues for his 1965 reading; both the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and Papas cut it in 1967. Since then, everyone from Al Green to reggae artist Prince Buster to Dolly Parton to British shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain has reinterpreted this timeless classic.