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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Phillips’

(Michael Buble and Chris Isaak pay tribute to Kansas City by performing Lieber and Stoller’s classic song during a 2007 tour stop in Chicago.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Chris Isaak has made a career working of the blueprint established by Elvis Presley. The debt is apparent in Isaak’s music, hairstyle and demeanor, a cool, effortless charm to the humor and charisma that plays equally well in both music and acting. So it’s only natural, then, that Isaak pay homage to Sun Records, the label that launched Presley.

Friday’s 90-minute show before a packed Uptown Theater paid homage to Sun and underlined its connection to Isaak’s own 26-year- old catalog. “Don’t Leave Me On My Own” sounded like a cross between “Wooden Heart” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”; “Let Me Down Easy” could have been a lost Presley single. During “American Boy” Isaak raised his arms and shook his hips with a vigor that would have landed him in trouble on the Ed Sullivan Show.

After driving through some of his favorite originals -– including a stretched-out “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” and reliably hypnotic “Wicked Games” -– Isaak devoted the second half of the night to Sun. The arrangements stayed faithful to the original recordings, but the crowd’s energetic response showed there is still a hunger for this material.

It takes courage to cover songs as beloved and well-known as “Ring of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Isaak pulled it off, in part because those songs are right in his wheelhouse anyway, but also because of his obvious respect for, and love of, the material. The upbeat numbers also gave guitarist Hershel Yatovitz plenty of space to unleash several of his rowdiest solos.

Isaak performed most of the main set wearing a sparkly, sequined ensemble that looked like a Nudie suit designed by Lady Gaga. He poked fun of the outfit several times during the night and emerged for the encore in an even more outrageous mirror ball suit.

The tone was warm and casual. Both Isaak and Yatovitz ventured into the crowd. After winding through the main level during “Don’t Leave Me On My Own,” (with frequent stops for pictures) Isaak delivered “Love Me Tender” from the front of the balcony. Later, Isaak introduced pianist Scott Plunkett as the type of musician children could look up to. After the applause died, Parker promptly produced a large bottle from his piano and took a long swig.

Fans still shuffling to their seats three songs into the set probably regretted their truancy. Although Isaak performed a generous two-dozen songs, most of the songs delivered could have fit comfortably on the A-side of a 45. Isaak ended the night with a gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Forever Blue.” The ending seemed premature, but at the same time it didn’t feel like he’d left anything out.

Setlist: Beautiful Homes, Dancin’, Somebody’s Crying, Don’t Leave Me On My Own, Love Me Tender, I Want Your Love, San Francisco Days, Wicked Games, Speak of the Devil, Let Me Down Easy, Go Walking Down There > American Boy, Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing, My Happiness > Ring of Fire, Dixie Fried, How’s the World Treating You?, Live It Up, Miss Pearl, Great Balls of Fire. Encore: Blue Hotel, Big Wide Wonderful World, Can’t Help Falling In Love, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Forever Blue.

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Chris Clark – “Love’s Gone Bad,” Pop #105, R&B #41

By Joel Francis

Producers had been looking for a “white singer with a black sound” long before Sam Phillips signed Elvis Presley. But Berry Gordy’s quest definitely added a layer of irony to the process.

Not that Gordy fared any better than the majority of his contemporaries. We can be fairly certain that the assets that drew Gordy to Chris Clark were not vocal.

Nonetheless, Gordy positioned Clark to be Motown – and America’s – answer to Dusty Springfield. He propped her up with songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland and even wrote and produced several numbers himself. Gordy’s favoritism didn’t go over so well at Hitsville. Other artists resented that Gordy spent so much time trying to make a star out of someone who refused to wear shoes, didn’t dress sharply and ate too much.

The public didn’t find much to like, either. Clark’s releases refused to dent the charts. “Love’s Gone Bad,” a HDH composition, was her greatest success, and somehow was enough to earn her the right to cut a full album the next year. 1967’s “Soul Sounds” dropped without a trace. So few copies were pressed that 40 years later it is a rare Motown collectible.

Despite all this, Clark managed to hang around Motown for quite a while. She co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay to “Lady Sings the Blues,” Motown’s 1972 foray into film. That film, of course, starred Gordy’s ultimate protégée, Diana Ross.

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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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