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Posts Tagged ‘Stax’

By Joel Francis

I’m still lost in the catacombs, down in the groove.

Lou Reed – New Sensations (1984) Lou Reed released several endeavors that sound more intriguing in concept than execution, but New Sensations stands out in a deep catalog full of non-sequiturs: It is relentless optimistic both lyrically and musically. I have no idea what put Reed in such a good mood, but it is a delight to hear praise impulsive behavior on “Doing the Things that We Want To,” turning the Detours’ “Do You Love Me” sideways for “I Love You, Suzanne” and celebrating a compatriot on “My Friend George.” If this sounds slight, fear not. There’s nothing here as lightweight as “The Original Wrapper,” which appears on his next album, Mistrial. New Sensations it a strong conclusion to an incredible – and diverse – trilogy of albums that appeared in consecutive years and represent Reed’s strongest run of material outside of the Velvet Underground.

Coathangers – The Devil You Know (2019) When first playing this sixth release from the all-female Atlanta trio one might think there was a mix-up at the pressing plant. Opening cut “Bimbo” opens with a light, bouncy guitar and piano line and airy vocals. Then the distortion kicks in at the chorus and we realize how the sonic dichotomy supports the song’s lyrics about making assumptions about women. Very clever. “Stranger Danger” employs a similar trick as coquette-ish repetition of the song title plays against more defiant vocals in the verses before all hell breaks loose on the chorus. The song does a great job of capturing #metoo-era menace in under three minutes. “Stranger Danger” sets the table nicely for “Fuck the NRA,” a song as brash and straightforward as its title and the album’s best moment. Clocking in at just over half an hour, The Devil You Know makes it point and quickly departs.

Sam and Dave – Double Dynamite (1966) Soul music abounds with upbeat songs and combos, but I don’t know of any as relentlessly happy as Sam and Dave. You can even hear them smiling during serious ballads like “When Something is Wrong with My Baby (Something is Wrong with Me).” Double Dynamite is Memphis soul at its finest, with Booker T. and the MGs serving as the backing band and Isaac Hayes and David Porter providing songs. The first side of this album has several of the duo’s hits, including “Soothe Me,” “Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody,” and “You’ve Got Me Hummin’.” The second side is less-known but still great and features a version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.”

Bob Dylan – Sidetracks (compilation) – This collection gathers all the non-album tracks released on box sets and hits collections over the years. The majority of the cuts come from the Biograph box set and are quite good, but I am partial to the songs from Greatest Hits, Volume II, which was a staple in my college dorm room. Dylanologists can rejoice than they no longer need skip through a half-dozen other anthologies for these hard-to-find tracks. Casual fans looking for the hits won’t find them here, but they will encounter a lot of great songs to send them scurrying deeper into the catalog. Non-albums singles like “Positively Fourth Street” and 1999’s Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” which will satisfy both audiences.

John Entwistle – Whistle Rymes (1972) – John Entwistle solo albums can be a dicey proposition. The majority of them are more miss than hit, I’m afraid. Thankfully, Whistle Rymes (sic), The Ox’s second solo album is a safe endeavor. That’s not to say it’s not for the faint-hearted. The liner notes, penned by Entwistle, is the beginning of a fairy tale about a girl named Boobity. So, yeah. (If this tale was ever completed elsewhere, I don’t want to know about it.) The closing song, “Nightmare (Please Wake Me Up)” is a glorious cacophony of horns, piano, violin and drums. The rest of the album is quite good. Anyone who heard The Who songs “Boris the Spider,” “Silas Stingy” or “Heaven and Hell” and thought they needed some more will be pleased with Whistle Rymes.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes from the Underground (1985) The jazz world lost a tremendous gift when Ellis Marsalias, patriarch of the great jazz family passed last week. I saw Marsalis at a small theater in Kansas City about a decade ago with a combo that included his son Jason on drums. Somehow, after the show, a neighbor who played saxophone and went with me had talked our way into joining the band – minus Jason – for drinks at the hotel across the street. I soaked in the conversation and experiences until Ellis arrived. He started telling stories about when Charlie Parker was in Jay McShann’s band. McShann, Ellis said, tried to get everyone to take his young horn player because he was so undependable. “You found him, you keep him!” Ellis remembered the other bandleaders telling McShann as we all laughed.

I mention all this here because I don’t have an Ellis Marsalis album and because there will be other opportunities to discuss the rest of the Marsalis family. I have no doubt somewhere in heaven the newly arrived pianist is sitting in on a heck of a jam session.

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By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

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(Above: Ziggy Marley will perform at this year’s 80-35 festival, but there are many great bands waiting to be discovered.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Over the past six years, the 80-35 music festival has put Des Moines and the Iowa music scene on the map. Great headliners draw increasingly bigger crowds, but the festival’s secret strength is drawing the best acts from the upper Midwest.

This year is no exception. Bands from nearly every neighboring state will fill the fest’s three stages this weekend.  Here are several bands I’m most looking forward to experiencing live on our nation’s birthday. (Note: Since I will only be able to attend the first day of the festival, all of the following recommendations are from Friday’s lineup.)

Any noisy three-piece rock band from Minneapolis is going to draw comparisons to Husker Du. Fury Things don’t run away from the similarities. Guitars explode from blown amps and drums sound like they are being punished. The band makes a compelling case for coming out early, and are guaranteed to jumpstart the day. (Fury Things perform at 12:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

If the Beach Boys hung out in Greenwich Village instead of Venice Beach they probably would have turned out a lot like the River Monks. The Des Moines-based quartet combines a sea of lush harmony vocals over a forest of banjos, guitars and other wooden instruments. Bonus points for an album cover that looks like a physical realization of Brian Eno’s topographic covers in the Ambient series. (The River Monks perform at 8 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Singer Johnathan Tolliver fronts soul outfit Black Diet like the second coming of Isaac Hayes, only with a better falsetto. The band may come from Minneapolis, but the sound is straight-up Memphis soul. Touches of slide blues guitar alongside a meaty B3 organ imagine what Booker T and the MGs may have sounded like if Duane Allman sat in (and brought a gospel choir). (Black Diet perform at 4:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

8035logo_1Maids haven’t released an album, but the electronic duo has more than enough original material from surreptitiously released singles to fill a set. Danny Heggen’s high tenor soars over keyboards and drum machines while just a touch of guitar fill out the minimalist sound. The song “Seashell” sounds like a lost 8-bit classic until waves of synthesizers take over the track, turning everyone in their wake into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Maids perform at 6 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Tree probably isn’t named for his love of forestry, but the Chicago MC proves there is more to hip hop than odes to weed. His raspy voice and rhymes are good enough, but what really stands out is the production. The song “Fame” sounds like it was inspired by William Burrough’s cut-up technique, with snippets of gospel organ or jazz piano diced and reassembled at random. “The King” employs fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s old trick of speeding up a familiar song for the backing track, but Tree ends up with something that would sound like an over-the-top parody if it didn’t work so well. (Tree performs at 2:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

Look for a review of Friday’s 80-35 festivities next week on The Daily Record.

 Keep reading:

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

Middle of the Map 2013

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(Above: Gil Scott-Heron performs “We Almost Lost Detroit” in concert. His June 20 performance at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., earns an honorable mention as one of the top shows of the year.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jonsi, April 22, Liberty Hall

Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.

Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.

Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.

Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center

Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater

An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.

Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City

The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.

Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar

Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.

David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater

After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.

Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads

The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.

Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater

On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.

Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater

Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2009

Top 10 concerts of 2008

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(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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Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Pop # 3, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Little Stevie Wonder hadn’t been little in a while, but “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was the first single clearly made by a grown man. Released in June, 1970, it was the first single Wonder produced on his own, and his first collaboration with Syreeta Wright, who would become his wife.

The Wright-Wonder marriage didn’t last long, but their musical collaboration lives on. Wonder helped write and produce much of the material on Wright’s first solo albums (including the lost Motown classic “Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta Wright”), and the two collaborated on songs that appeared on “Where I’m Coming From,” “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” This pivotal run of albums transformed Wonder as both an artist and a musician, setting up his staggering run of success later in the decade.

Signed to Motown in 1963, Wonder was starting to get bored with Hitsville at the dawn of the ‘70s. He was exploring different musical styles and arrangements and trying to broaden his sound. One day Wonder gave a tape of an instrumental he was working on to Lee Garrett, a frequent collaborator. Garrett shared the tape with Wright and the two began brainstorming ideas. The title, however, came from Wonder’s mom Lula, who exclaimed the phrase after hearing a rough version of the track.

“Signed” was recorded with the Funk Brothers, but had a strong Southern soul groove. Although many Hitsville staffers were reluctant to release a number so far removed from the Motown sound, Wonder prevailed and the song spent six weeks at the top of the R&B charts. “Signed” also earned Wonder his first Grammy nomination, which he ultimate lost to Stax artist Clarence Carter for the song “Patches.”

Elton John was the first musician to cover “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The pre-fame pianist cut the song under his birth name, Reg Dwight, for a discount copy band compilation. James Brown’s right-hand man Bobby Byrd released his version as a single a few years later. In 1977, Peter Frampton combined elements of “Signed” and Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” on his follow up to “Frampton Comes Alive.”

In 2003, Michael McDonald released his version on his Motown covers collection. Later that year, Wonder and Angie Stone appeared with the British boy band Blue on their cover, which hit No. 11 on the British charts. Most recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama played the song at the end of his 2008 campaign events.

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Edwin Starr – “Twenty-Five Miles,” Pop # 6, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

If the horn arrangement on “Twenty-Five Miles” sounds like something out of the Stax studio, that’s because it is. Motown songwriters Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol based their number on the obscure Wilson Pickett song “32 Miles Out of Waycross (Mojo Mama)” written by Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and recorded in 1967.

It’s little surprise Fuqua and Bristol turned to a Pickett number when looking for material for Edwin Starr. Like Pickett, Starr was a strong baritone who sang from the throat. And like fellow Motown family member Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Starr’s voice was seeped in the Southern style.

Unlike, Stubbs, however, Starr didn’t have a string of hits under his belt, which made him a bit of an outcast at the label. A Detroit native who somehow escaped Berry Gordy’s eagle eye for talent, Starr’s biggest hit. to date was the 1965 song “Agent Double ‘O’ Soul” recorded on the Ric-Tic label. Three years later, when Motown purchased Ric-Tick in 1968, Starr joined the Hitsville stable.

“Twenty-Five Miles” opens with Benny Benjamin’s athletic drumming and he stays front and center as the funky scoutmaster that keeps Starr’s (and everyone on the dance floor) feet relentlessly moving. The bass line echoes a horn line that has become a staple of marching and pep bands across the country. The listener never learns what happens when Starr reaches his destination, but the energetic vocals definitely prove that getting there is half the fun.

Although “25 Miles” was a Top 10 hit, it often been overlooked when acts mine the Motown catalog. For nearly 20 years, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were the only group to cover the song. Their version was released several months after Starr’s as an album track on “In the Jungle, Babe.” In 1989, UK dance outfit the Cookie Crew sampled “25 Miles” on their hit “Got to Keep On.” Australian boy band Human Nature covered “25 Miles” on their 2005 release “Reach Out: The Motown Album.”

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