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Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Thomas’

(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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By Joel Francis

When RZA needed a hook for “C.R.E.A.M.” he turned to the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” and joined a large fraternity of rappers and producers who have leaned on the Stax catalog for their tracks. And though Stax has provided the samples for hits by Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and countless others, the source material has somehow remained in the secret province of crate-diggers.

Until now. “Stax: The Soul of Hip Hop” is 14 wonderfully selected, mostly obscure late-period Stax cuts released as part of Concord Record’s revitalization of the label. It’s unlikely that many Ghostface Killah fans listening to “Supreme Clientele” would have the urge to track down the source material for “The Grain.” But listening to Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Penguin” on this compilation not only sheds light on the music that informed Ghostface – it’s fun enough to make the album more than a history lesson.

It’s great if De La Soul and Cypress Hill are the reasons these song sound familiar, but the collection succeeds because it dusts off great songs that are ignored on most retrospectives. 24-Carat Black’s lone album was ignored in 1973. That album’s title track “Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth” opens this compilation with a slab of socially conscious funk. The female trio the Emotions found their greatest success with Earth, Wind and Fire in the late ‘70s, but “Blind Alley” shows they were fully formed pop soul act long before Maurice White helmed their albums.

The Dramatics’ “Get Up and Get Down” foreshadows the disco movement, while Little Milton’s “Packed Up and Took My Mind” is the marriage of soul and blues that Robert Cray has been chasing for 20 years. The inclusion of Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs tosses a bone to casual fans, although two Hayes cuts may be one too many.

The only misstep is a song that dates from Stax’ early days with Atlantic Records. Wendy Rene’s 1964 track “After the Laughter (Come Tears)” is an unconvincing ballad whose best quality is a great calliope organ line. Complaining about this cut, the extra Hayes track and the wish that the producers would have packed the disc with more tracks, though, misses the point and spoils a great treasure.

This set not only proves that the hip hop samplers had immaculate taste, but that they weren’t just cherry picking.  While they may have only mined 10 or 15 seconds from each track, the ore runs consistently deep through each performance.

If hip hop is the reason for this collection to exist and that marketing angle will draw those fans to this music, then so be it. But a celebration this fun doesn’t need an excuse.

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(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.

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howlin-wolf

Above: The Wolf howls.

By Joel Francis

Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.

When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.

The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.

It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.

The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.

In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.

A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.

While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.

The 300-pound Burnett was better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf. Yet another Mississippi escapee, Wolf moved to Memphis after his military discharge following World War II and had a radio show in West Memphis, Ark. His company on the airways included Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Like King, Wolf cut some albums for the Bihari brothers and Modern Records, but after Phillips slipped Chess a copy of “How Many More Years” a bidding war erupted for Wolf’s music. Chess won the battle and Wolf moved to Chicago to cut records with Dixon and compete with Waters on the legendary Maxwell Street blues scene.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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