Friday, May 20, 2011

Messing Up Exodus

From BILLBOARD, November 21, 1964
What happens if a record company is about to go broke and someone tries to squeeze money from its most valuable assets before the doors close? Well, Jerry Butler, known soul crooner and duet partner of Betty Everett, could tell the story. He was such a valuable asset, and the doors where those of Vee-Jay Records in Chicago.

Vee-Jay Records was virtually broke in spring 1966, three years after having been the first U.S. label to distribute the smash-selling records of the Beatles in the States. Ewart Abner, who had returned to Vee-Jay as general manager, saw the end of the company written on the wall and thus in 1965 started releasing Vee-Jay material on a new label. This label was called »Exodus«, a choice which does suggest either unwanted irony or conscious cynicism on the part of Abner. However, it seems that Abner managed the new label pretty secretively because as late as August 1966, when Vee-Jay was dissolved by court order, the employees of the company had never heard of »Exodus« (according to the account by Mike Callahan and David Ewards; the story as told in Robert Pruter's nonetheless authoritative Chicago Soul, p. 44, differs in some respects).

In any case, production at »Exodus« never went smooth. There was already much chaos behind the doors of Vee-Jay before it stopped all activities in May 1966, and the secretive existence of Exodus certainly wasn't helpful either. Several albums were released on the Exodus label, but it is unknown whether all catalogue numbers really were ever produced or sold to the public. What is more, Exodus used, quite inconsistently, different label designs in the few months of its existence, and it commonly happened that mono recordings were sold as stereo or vice versa. And in a number of cases the cover provided wrong information about what you could actually hear on the records!

Exodus LP # 316 (1966)
All that was of some concern to Jerry Butler. Already towards the beginning of 1965, Vee-Jay had released a second »best-of« album containing famous songs of his, entitled »More of the Best of Jerry Butler« (VJS-1119), and this album was then re-released on Exodus (LP # 316). Curiously, the front cover of this LP does list twelve songs but they come in the wrong order and do not even correspond to those we actually hear on the album: »Since I Don't Have You« (with Betty Everett) and »Make It Easy On Yourself« are promised on the front cover, yet the LP contains »Just Be True« and »Ain't That Loving You Baby« (with Betty Everett) instead. It is only on the back cover that we find the correct information and the actual track list of the LP. You can compare the front cover (on the left, detail) with the back cover (on the right, detail):

Even on the label of side 2 the wrong track list is printed, repeating the list of the front cover. Thus the content of the LP was changed in the last moment when front cover and label had already been printed. Or, equally probable, the inconsistencies between the information as given on the front cover viz. the label and the actual content of the LP resulted from the general chaos and nobody really noticed the mistake:

What is not in dispute is that somebody messed with the content of the LP, for whatever reason: The two songs »Just Be True« and »Ain't That Loving You Baby« replaced both »Make It Easy On Yourself« and »Since I Don't Have You«. This change was, in all probability, a last-minute decision, and that is why you even can hear this on the LP. Several record researchers have noticed this, among them Ron Dawson who remarked: »The last track on one side was taken off (although still listed on the cover) and replaced. I forget what the tune was but the way it was placed on was a doozy! You could actually hear the tonearm dropping onto the record and then the song starts. What an operation!« This »last track« is »Ain't That Loving You Baby«. In the unusually long interval between »Just Be True« and »Ain't That Loving You Baby« you can indeed »hear the tonearm dropping«:

Jerry Butler & Betty Everett: »Ain't That Loving You Baby« from the Exodus LP # 316 (1966):

»Ain't That Loving You Baby« had been recorded back in 1964 in Chicago and released as B-side of the Vee-Jay single # 613, eventually reaching # 24 r&b. The song in itself is one of the most beautiful duets of Jerry Butler and Betty Everett, and arguably their most successful tune apart from »Let It Be Me«.

I don't know whether the Exodus LP »More of the Best of Jerry Butler« had any significant sales. In any case, this messy LP did not damage the career of the singer. His contract with Vee-Jay ended on May 31, 1966, and he then moved to Mercury Records. He was welcomed there with open arms and remained with Mercury for a number of years, starting a second successful career. Eventually he was to have more success at Mercury as ever in the time before 1967. In 1968, he landed a # 1 r&b hit with »Hey Western Union Man«, followed in 1969 by »Only The Strong Survive«.

In the following you can hear two more songs from the 1966 Exodus LP, »Need To Belong« (recorded back in 1963 and released on Vee-Jay # 567, r&b # 02 in spring 1964) and »Strawberries« (recorded in Chicago in 1962 and released on Vee-Jay # 526). Unfortunately, the sound quality is not excellent.
     I can't hear the schmaltzy ballad »Need To Belong« too often at one time. The general public, however, has a different taste, and this song, written by Jerry Butler's buddy Curtis Mayfield, has become one of his better-known tunes. (Both Jerry and Curtis had been members of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers and the Impressions.)
     »Strawberries« likewise has many fans. The lyrics are humorously romantic, and according to a critic of the Chicago Tribune »the song ... combines the lonesome cry of a street vendor and a lover's self-reassurance.« This cry »Strawberrrr-ries«, whose final syllable »-rrrries« is chirruped by Jerry Butler into the highest octave, faintly reminds me of Elvis Presley's »Crawfish« from the movie »King Creole«. Peter Guralnick called this song »interesting« (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, London 1995, p. 449), and it almost does seem no coincidence that also a Billboard critic (in the issue of March 16, 1963, p. 34) took recourse to this adjective when he called Jerry Butler's West Indies-based »Strawberries« »interesting«. And as it is, calling a song »interesting« pretty much sounds like giving a polite compliment to an inept cook. What Jerry Butler thought of the song is unknown, but it isn't mentioned in his autobiography Only The Strong Survive. Memoirs of a Soul Survivor (Bloomington 2000). Nor is the Exodus LP »More of the Best of ...« which is even lacking in the closing discography ... for a reason, I guess.

Jerry Butler: »Need To Belong« / »Strawberries« from the Exodus LP »More of The Best of ...« (1966):

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Holding On

Mid-week Gospel

It's time to follow up the story of the Meditation Singers. Roughly one month ago,
I wrote about their 1958 album which was spear-headed by Della Reese presenting »her« Meditation Singers.

The Meditation Singers (1964), left to right: E. Rundless, L. Lee, D. Hammonds, V. Rogers,
M. Waters. - Photo from the Gospel LP # MG-3038.

The problem for the Meditation Singers in the early 1960s was that they had crossed over into secular venues, e.g. when they accompanied Della Reese in night clubs or Las Vegas casinos. This brought them considerable disrepute in the traditional gospel community. You can sense it to the present day. Thus, in most of the better known literature on Black Gospel (suffice it to mention the names of Anthony Heilbut, Bil Carpenter or Robert Darden) the Meditation Singers are virtually ignored. Horace C. Boyer in his The Golden Age of Gospel (Urbana- Chicago 2000, p. 127 f.) does mention and acknowledge them as »one of the premier female gospel groups of Detroit«, but apart from noting their »great influence on the Motown Sound« exclusively deals with their '50s activity and gives much space to the role of Della Reese (which, after all, was somewhat limited really). And as if to underline this near silence in the literature on gospel music we find them variously, and sometimes in greater detail, treated in non-gospel works, e.g. in Jay Warner's American Singing Groups which basically is concerned with non-religious music. There, and thanks to the happy coincidence provided by the alphabet, we find the Meditation Singers in the company of the Medaillons (a male West Coast outfit of the '50s) and the Mello-Kings (»one of the blackest-sounding white groups of the 50s«, a quintett from New York). They likewise appear in the priceless encyclopaedia of Keith Rylatt (Groovesville USA. The Detroit Soul & R&B Index, Worthing 2010), because they recorded in 1961/2 several songs for the Detroit labels »D-Town« and »HOB« under the name »The Meditations«.

Gospel LP # MG-3038 (1964)
However, the Meditation Singers did not abandon the field of gospel music in the first half of the 1960s and »went pop«, far from it. A good example of their output during these years is their last album for Savoy Records, released on the subsidiary »Gospel«. At the same time, it was to be their last LP before they moved to Checker / Chess Records. I am speaking of the Gospel LP # MG-3038 entitled »I'm Holding On«. Pondering the title and considering the pretty symbolic cover (SEE POSTSCRIPT) it seems to me that they inten- ded to put across a clear and unequivocal message with this LP: Look here, we're still »holding on«, namely to gospel (and to the Gospel), and we're still holding up the cross (right into the spotlight as the cover shows)! It was like saying, don't you think we've become night club singers! And fittingly, this LP does not contain anything that could be called »pop-gospel«, and the dominant piano viz. organ, coupled with the absence of guitars, restricts the similarity of the overall sound to what »secular« outfits of the time were doing. But then, where can you draw the line? It certainly can't be determined solely on the basis of which instruments are employed, and in regard to the purely vocal aspects it's very hard to separate the fields of gospel and '60s-r&b anyway. Needless to add the truism that the latter could not have come into being without the former when it comes to the vocal techniques.

Unfortunately, the sound quality on this LP is not perfect, but that can't be helped. The songs were recorded on September 23, 1964, at the Medallion Studios in Newark, New Jersey, and supervised by Rev. Lawrence Roberts, Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Nutley, likewise in New Jersey. Roberts was an »iconic gospel producer at Savoy Records and director of the famous Angelic Choir of Nutley«, who had produced one of Savoy's best-selling LPs, »Peace Be Still«, in 1963. You can hear E[a]rnestine Rundless (lead), Verlene Rogers (sometimes incorrectly spelled Verlaine Rogers), Donna Hammonds, Marie Waters and Laura Lee (Rundless).

The two songs you can hear below are »Lord I've Tried« and »My Soul Looks Back«. Both are standards that have been recorded by many other gospel singers or groups. The first song was written by William Herbert Brewster (1897-1987), the second by Rev. James Cleveland (1931- 1991); Cleveland himself did much work with the Meditation Singers. And both songs are primarily a showcase for the lead singer, while the backing vocals remain rather passive throughout and basically accompany the lead voice; more so in the first song than in the second. It is up to you to judge how close this kind of gospel music really was to contemporary soul and r&b, which I think is pretty much the case in many important respects. Of course, the message was different, and the similarities in vocal performance, rhythmic structures and harmonies should not make us forget that we're dealing here with religious songs. They are meant as such, and deserve to be heard as such. Yet it remains a fact that you could buy this album when the first wave of the »British invasion« had just overflowed the U.S.A. If you concentrate on the music, this is an interesting point to keep in mind.

The Meditation Singers:
»Lord I've Tried« / »My Soul Looks Back« from the Gospel LP »I'm Holding On« (1964)

* * *
Postscript 16. Sept. 2011:
The cover was designed, as is obvious at the first glance, by the legendary Harvey (see this collection for his cover art). Curiously, this cover was then re-used on another Savoy LP from ca. 1970 (by Dorothy Norwood, see here). There are several other Harvey covers not identical but rather similar to the one under discussion (see here and here).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

At Last

Well, I apologize. I was getting slightly impatient.
Yes, has restored the stuff they had temporarily removed last week. That is something.

Monday, May 16, 2011

When There is a Point in Looking

But no, I'm not goin' to have my day ruined by rumulating if will ever restore the contents it removed »temporarily« last week. On the contrary, I've got something to cheer me up ... it goes by the name of »Jody Miller's eyes«.

I already posted this last week (before it was put in the bin by Blogger). I then said that I was in a C&W-mood, or rather, in a specific »Jody Miller«-mood. Not the usual stuff, musicallywise, for this blog. But I'm not dogmatic about it. Thing is, some days ago I got a copy of Jody Miller's Epic LP # 30382 »Look At Mine« which was released in Dec. 1970. I knew the songs already and had seen the front cover of the album before, but what I didn't know was the back cover. And here it is, have a look:

Isn't it beautiful? Gosh. Jody could sing me the phone book of Boston in alphabetical order and I'd still get completely lost. And this terrific shot doesn't come without a reason. The album is entitled »Look At Mine«, same as the title track. If refers to the eyes, her eyes. Among other things. In any case, apart from celebrating Jody's eyes, it's a nice song. I've always liked the clever lyrics: Jody is praising her qualities to a guy who dates another girl, and whatever she mentions is then followed by the playful imperative »look at mine«! Here we go:

Jody Miller: »Look At Mine« from the Epic LP # 30382 (1970):

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Second Thoughts

Tamla LP 285 (cover of first issue)
True, I am not an overly ardent fan of Marvin Gaye, some of his earliest songs, several of his duets and the masterful album »What's Going On« (1971) excepted. His 1968 LP »In The Groove«, released August 26, is not among the exceptions. It was Marvin's first solo LP since about two years, as during that period he was primarily recording duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. In August 1968, Tammi had been gravely ill and unable to sing or perform for ten months, but right then their duet-album »You're All I Need« was released alongside Marvin's solo LP. The stuff on the album »In The Groove« is a curious hotchpotch, putting moderately funky songs (»Chained«) and pop tunes (»You«, »Every Now And Then«) together with seemingly out-dated r&b standards of years past (»Some Kind Of Wonderful«, »There Goes My Baby«). In other words: A classical pre-1970s-album with no obvious inner concept or aesthetic integrity.

And you know what? Despite the fact that the two songs from this LP that initially charted were »You« and »Chained« (two slick, mainstreamish productions that to me sound awfully dated now) the ones I like most on this album are those two produced and co-written by Marvin Gaye himself, viz. »At Last (I Found A Love)« and »Change What You Can«. As far as I can see, they have not been given the least attention by anyone were it not for the fact that they were penned, in part, by the singer. Yet these two songs are neither too much in the pop-mould nor do they sound out-dated, rather they appear as nitty-gritty pieces of 60s-r&b. You can hear The Andantes (Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks and Louvain Demps) as backing vocals. And I would like to venture here the heretical opinion that these two songs are the best on the album ... with the exception of ... well, this brings us to the point towards which I am meandering. But before arriving there let's listen to the first of the two songs:

Marvin Gaye: »At Last (I Found A Love)« from the Tamla LP # TS 285 (1968):

Marvin's album, as it appeared in August 1968, was entitled »In The Groove«. It may be true that it had »an awful cover design« (as someone remarked on a webpage, but the link's dead by now), yet it reached # 63 on the LP chart, Marvin's best position ever. On the front cover, several songs were spelled out in full so as to give the buyer some idea of which great songs he could expect. Missing from the front cover was ... »I Heard It Through The Grapevine«, the great mystery song of this LP and by far the outstanding one. Of course, you know it all and it need not be divul- ged here. It was Marvin's first # 1 pop song, and Motown's as well. It is frequently said to be Marvin's foremost signature song. It sold four milion copies in its day, more than any other Motown single, and I won't go here into the many awards and honours the song has reaped since.

Tamla LP 285 (cover of second issue)
The story of that song, written by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, is quickly told (for details, see also here): It was first recorded by Marvin on April 10, 1967, but shelved by the order of none less than Berry Gordy himself. It was then recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips in June and released in September 1967. In reaching # 1 r&b and # 2 pop, it was Motown's most successful release to date. This had obviously demonstrated the hit potential of the song, but now its very success spoke against releasing Marvin's older version. Indeed, it wasn't released for the time being, and Berry Gordy had to be sourly convinced to at least have it find its place on Marvin's 1968 LP »In The Groove«. Only when the DJs started playing the song from the LP while more and more ignoring Marvin's recent singles, Gordy gave in and had the song released as a single towards the end of October 1968. With the song overshadowing all other tunes of the LP by now, Motown even changed the cover of Marvin's LP, deleted the former title »In The Groove« and now sold it to the public with »I Heard It Through The Grapevine« written in red ... and adorned by an exclamation mark.

Soul aficionados will forever be divided of whether Gladys's or Marvin's versions, which are not very similar, are to be preferred. To those who have not already guessed it I can say that I am a diehard enthusiast of Gladys's version. However, the song is not the point here. The point is rather that once and again record companies sent the wrong horse on the race course and then tried to remedy the error, once they had come to realize it, by quickly putting another horse out. In doing so, the covers of LPs were re-done, following the unexpected success of a particular song. It had happened to Betty Everett before and to several others after 1968. I will return to it, time permitting.

The last detail to mention are the labels. I am somewhat at a loss in this respect, especially as the two records of the Tamla LP 285 in my possession (one each of the first and second issue of the LP) show the following labels:

Left: label of first issue / Right: label of second issue
The thing to confound me most is that the label shown on the left is commonly referred to as the »fourth« Tamla LP-label while the one on the right shows the previous, »third« LP-label. Yet the later label has the first-issue title of the LP (»In The Groove«) printed on it, while the older label was used for the second issue (»I Heard It Through The Grapevine«). And as it is commonly understood that the later »fourth« label was introduced at some time in late 1968, probably in November or December, the question remains: Why does the first issue of the LP show the »fourth« LP-label that was, as far as we know, introduced only towards the end of 1968? And more complicated still: Why does the second issue that wasn't released before the end of 1968 show the earlier »third« label? I have no answer to this.

Since the label change was made right during the time when Marvin Gaye's LP was marketed in the last months of 1968, in both the first and second issues, it is likely that the pressing plants used both labels indiscriminately for a certain period. In any case, the record producers at Motown in general didn't proceed much with criteria. And it shows on the record as well which is anything but finely manufactured; not the only one on Motown's long list of less-than-perfect output. Especially annoying is the fact that the fade-out of the songs is frequently too short and abrupt, with the sound being cut off before it has actually faded. Never mind. Let's hear the second of Marvin's songs from the album:

Marvin Gaye: »Change What You Can« from the Tamla LP # TS 285 (1968):

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bluesy Messages

Mid-week Gospel

Here we go again ... back to The Loving Sisters from Arkansas. Last time, on Easter Sunday, I presented the group for the first time and you could listen to two songs from their 1974 LP »The Sisters And Their Sons«. Today, I would like to introduce one of their albums released in 1973 on Peacock / ABC Dunhill.

Peacock LP # PLP-187
The album is called »A New Dimension« and as was usual with the group, all songs were composed and arranged by lead singer (and driving force behind the Loving Sisters) Gladys Givens McFadden. Once more we have here a wonderful album, with ten songs of different moods, styles and flavours. The LP was released, for all I know, in September 1973 and shortly (though with almost lavishing praise) reviewed in the September 22, 1973, issue of BILLBOARD (see below). In particular, the reviewer stresses the gospel-soul crossover appeal of this album: »... one of those rare sets that manages to capture a true gospel flavour while also incorporating strong traces of soul which can move the LP into other areas besides the somewhat limited gospel field. ... This set ... could easily provide one of the few gospel-soul crossover sets.«

This is true, and in some ways it isn't. It all depends on how you define »soul«. My guess is that the reviewer took »soul« here to mean »secular black music« in general, because half of the songs on the album are not in the Soul-mould at all. I'd rather stress the variety of musical styles on this LP: The first song, »It's Jesus, Y'All«, is »cold funk«, a mid-tempo funky piece of however detached vocals (mixed into the background with a noticeable, »distancing« hall effect). Then, there are some downright blues-gospel songs, two of which you can hear below. There is one shout-song at a frenzied speed, aptly entitled »Cry Loud«, with much light-speed tambourine-shaking and manic hand-clapping, just the type of song which, unfortunately, came to dominate a large part of contemporary gospel music (today rendered the more a nuisance by being performed by giant choirs which leave you with a »wall-of-sound« experience of undistinguished vocal chaos - well, it's a matter of personal taste ...). Finally, there are several soul-gospel ballads with a more or less funky undercurrent, one of these with the voice of Gladys's son Leonard Givens.

On the whole, this album is remarkable for its variety. There may not be a single song that stands out but the complete package is quite an achievement. It didn't go anywhere near commercial success, to my knowledge. What is more, the Loving Sisters went about very programmatically in creating different shades of »the right sound of today«, as the sleeve notes proudly proclaim, and that explains the equally proud title of the LP: »A New Dimension«. Well, it was right that but people wouldn't notice much at the time. Maybe this was due to the fact that Aretha Franklin in 1972 had given gospel a great push by returning to religious tunes in her widely acclaimed »Amazing Grace« album. For one thing, this may have overshadowed other gospel recordings issued at the time. For another thing, Aretha stuck to a very »classical« mode of gospel: the old songs, the old ways of performing them. She did it very well all right but she didn't dare attacking convention. Actually she avoided to make gospel sound like soul or r&b-tunes and rather tried to keep her distance from the secular field. This is, of course, easily explained by her previous »secular« career, and the many who criticized her for returning to gospel at all could only be pacified by offering them the conventional package. Not so the Loving Sisters.

One word about the album as such: It was released on the Peacock label (# 187). Peacock since May '73 belonged to ABC-Dunhill. Then, in late 1978, ABC was sold to MCA. The entry on Peacock/ABC on www. gives some further details about what happened then: »MCA reissued 100-plus Peacock and Songbird gospel LPs in the early Eighties on with references to Peacock and Songbird eliminated from the covers and new MCA catalog numbers stamped in gold.« In fact, the LP I possess has that golden MCA-stamp on the front cover, but the Peacock and/or ABC references are not in any way removed. So I guess all the remaining original releases were »re-branded« as well, not only the re-issues. I don't even know whether this LP of the Loving Sisters was ever re-issued.

The two songs I would like to present here are the two »bluesy« songs of the album. The first, »Why«, is as good an example of blues-gospel as you are ever likely to hear. And the song is not a religious song in the proper sense but laments the selfishness of people: »So many nights, I was all alone. I didn't have no one to call my own. I even tried to call a friend of mine. I just couldn't reach them on the line ... I wanna know why do I understand everybody and no one understand me now ...« She listens to others' problems, but nobody would listen to her when she's in trouble ... »people nowadays seem so selfish you can't find a friend«. The song is beautifully performed, with a very touching message. The lead voice and the backing vocals are mixed separately to the right and left channel, respectively, something which I until now can't make my mind up whether this was a happy idea or not. Judge for yourself! The second song, »I Owe It All To The Lord«, is rather similar, in its »bluesy« mood and overall harmonies, to the first song. It is introduced with a pretty »Hawaiian« sounding steel guitar which continues to crop up throughout the song, giving it a slightly exotic flavour. And the song is more overtly religious: »Of all the good things that I have I like to say: I owe it to the Lord ...«

The Loving Sisters (feat. Gladys McFadden):
»Why« / »I Owe It All To The Lord« from the Peacock LP 187 (1973):

* * *
From BILLBOARD, Sept. 22, 1973

Happy Birthday, Eric!

Today, Eric Burdon of »The Animals«-fame celebrates his 70th birthday. I wish him all the best.
     It is a good occasion to re-read his 1966-essay on race and music in the U.S.A., published in the December '66 issue of EBONY, here:

»An "Animal" Views America: Young British rhythm-and-blueser talks on music and race« (EBONY, Dec. 1966, pp. 160 ff.)

Eric Burdon since the 1960s passes as the white musician who more than anybody of the British music scene emulated black music, tried to sound black and spoke out in favour of black musicians. This made him, during the 1960s, not a very popular figure in the U.S.-mainstream media, especially when he was commenting on race issues: »The white people in America are the most hospitable that I have ever met anywhere in the world. It's only when the race issue is brought up that they suddenly turn into something monstrous« Burdon boldly stated.
     He constantly stressed the big impact black music had on himself and his generation, while at the same time criticizing the U.S. public to have forgotten or ignored the black roots of 1950s-Rock 'n' Roll and 1960s-Beat music. In the EBONY- essay he says: »An example was a guy I met in Tampa, Fla., who asked me where the Animals got their ideas and style from. And just one mile down the road was a Negro church that he passed by probably 20 times a week and he didn't even know it was there.« And this attitude did lead him to pass severe judgments on white musicians popular at the time, e.g. Bob Dylan: »Bob Dylan has arrived now. It has taken him all of his 25 years to get to the point Chuck Berry was at 10 years ago. Dylan didn't know which direction he was going in until he found out that what he really wanted to do was what Chuck Berry had been doing for years. To me, now, Dylan is the modern-day, white Chuck Berry.«
     On the other hand, however, I cannot agree with everything he put forward. His enthusiasm for black music is undoubted but Burdon unconsciously still condoned basic elements of ethnic stereotypization or even white racism towards the blacks, e.g. by seeing the musical expression of black people as something »animalistic«, and certainly his respective comments in this vein do sound rather outlandish from today's perspective, to say the least. In EBONY he referred to the likes of Fats Domino, Big Maybelle, Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan and others, saying: »I knew ... that someday I just had to try and sing like that. ... Rock and roll music is simple, basic, animalistic.That's why we call ourselves the Animals. To most people Animals mean tigers, lions, elephants and zoos. But to me it means sweat, lies, music, worry, soul.« And not satisfied with playing on the »animal-metaphor« he returns to it when speaking about Nina Simone: »I've been in the States often and I've met most of the people I worship. I've learned so much, not only about their music, but about life from people like Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B.King, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone (being in the same room with Nina for the first time is like being face to face with a black panther) and Chuck Berry.«
     But then, these were other times. It is to Burdon's credit, in any case, that he always spoke out strongly against any prejudice based on race conceptions or others. And he didn't hold back when it came to that: »When I was in Mississippi I spoke to the mayor of Laurel and other government officials. Whatever they may say in the newspapers, I found out where they are really, because they talked to me as a fellow white person. I taped one interview and brought it back to New York. I listened to it time and time again and thought, "Jesus Christ, you know, those guys are running a state!"«. In saying this, Burdon surely had a point.
Happy Birthday.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Let's Hear the Lass

The fame of New Orleans as a creative hub for r&b and soul music is commonly buried under the legacies, seemingly more important and lasting, of Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia or even Cincinnati and New York. And while New Orleans's heritage of big band sound, jazz and cajun is widely celebrated, all other styles of music created in the Crescent City have been underrated or outright forgotten. Well, that is a mistake. Everybody who wants to correct this picture can easily go for John Broven's classical study Walking to New Orleans: The Story of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues (1974, the US-edition was published under the title Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans). And then we have, from recent years, the book by Jeff Hannusch (The Soul of New Orleans: A Legacy of Rhythm And Blues, Ville Platte 2001) and Rick Coleman's biography of Fats Domino (Blue Monday. Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, Cambridge, Mass. 2006). There is therefore no problem in re-evaluating the historical importance of New Orleans for r&b or soul.

Minit LP # 0004 (1963)
A good introduction to the musical richness of the town during the early 1960s offers the Minit LP »New Orleans: Home of the Blues, Volume 2« (Minit LP 0004, 1963). It contains songs by Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, The Showmen and Irma Thomas. Nothwithstanding the somewhat misleading title as good as all songs on this LP clearly belong to the r&b or early southern soul tradition, though they are more or less strongly influenced by the peculiar New Orleans sound. And that's what makes this LP so interesting.

Six of the twelve songs on this LP are by Irma Thomas. Indeed, this LP has been called, with some justification, the »first album« of Irma Thomas (her actual solo albums were released only later on the Imperial label). Irma Thomas is renowned as the true »Soul-Queen of New Orleans« to the present day, and she was the most successful r&b singer active in and around New Orleans in the 1960s. (See also Grace Lichtenstein's / Laura Dankner's Musical Gumbo: The Music Of New Orleans, New York 1993, p. 172-191.) Between 1960 and 1966 she recorded for Ron, Minit, Bandy and Imperial, all labels closely connected to the Crescent City or even based there. In 1967 she moved on to Chess Records (Chicago). Irma Thomas's most famous hits were (and still are) »Ruler Of My Heart« (1963), »Wish Someone Would Care«, »Break-a-way« and »Time Is On My Side« (all from 1964). On this blog, you could already hear her song »It's Raining«.

The two songs you can listen to in the following are from the Minit LP # 0004. At the same time, they were released as A- and B-side of her third Minit-single (# 642) in January 1962. The first song, »I Done Got Over It«, had already been a hit in 1961 for Ernie K-Doe (civic name Ernest Kador Jr.) who also wrote the song. The second song, »Gone« was written, according to the information on the disc label, by a certain »N. Neville«, that is »Naomi Neville«, and this again was the songwriter's pseudonym of Allen Toussaint but actually the maiden name of his mother. Both songs resemble each other somewhat and say »New Orleans!« with every note you hear. This becomes particularly evident from the rhythm as well as from the accompanying piano which not a little reminds of the style of Fats Domino and his famous »triplets«. Ernie K-Doe and Allen Toussaint were the masterminds behind this particular »New Orleans-Soul« and those mainly responsible for the recordings at Minit Records.

That »I Done Got Over It« is a »gospelish tune« as a critic remarked in Billboard (February 3, 1962, p. 28) seems very far-fetched to me. Equally questionable is his verdict that the backing is »a bit old-fashioned«. But this can still be tolerated. However, the same critic's verdict concerning Irma's song »Gone« basically shows that the guy either wrote his first review that day or that he had a strong dislike of everything coming out of New Orleans: »Lass sells a slow tempo ballad with warmth, aided a bit by the group and combo. Lass is better than the material.« Well. Let's better listen to the »lass«:

Irma Thomas: »I Done Got Over It« / »Gone« from the Minit LP # 0004 (1963):

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Many Uses of a Dark Room

»In The Garden«

Summer has returned. And a Sunday in May is just the right day to present the religious hymn »In The Garden«.

Soul Note LP # 1006 (1980)
Both Mitty Collier and Fontella Bass, among many others, have recorded versions of this song. Mitty Collier's version comes from her LP »The Warning« (1972). Fontella Bass's version is contained on her album »From the Root to the Source« (Soul Note # 1006, 1980, Italian pressing). The songs on Fontella's LP were recorded on 4. & 5. February in the Barigozzi Studios, Milan. Fontella is accompanied by her mother Martha Bass who had been active for decades in the gospel circuit and for a time was a member of the famous Ward Singers.

The hymn »In The Garden« was composed in 1912 by Charles Austin Miles (1868-1946) and belongs since many years to the common repertoire of gospel singers, even if neither composer nor his song made it into Anthony Heilbut's Gospel Sound. However, Cedric J. Hayes's / Robert Laughton's The Gospel Discography 1943-1970 (West Vancouver: Eyeball Productions 2007) lists no less than 25 recordings of this song (up to 1970), and the list does not include the many commercial »Pop-Gospel«-recordings of the song by the likes of Dionne Warwick (1968), Loretta Lynn (1968), Pat Boone (1957), Perry Como (1958) and Elvis Presley (1967)! (Perry Como's version, recorded on June 18, 1958, with the »Ray Charles Singers«, was arranged by Ray Charles himself.)

In a blog entry, the great-granddaughter of C.A. Miles provides the following information: »By the way, for a little bit of irony, the gospel song we are speaking of, In The Garden, was written on a cold, dreary day in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn't even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.« This more or less corresponds to what Miles himself (as quoted in George Washington Sanville's book Forty Gospel Hymn Stories, 1947) said, namely that he had the inspiration for this song in his dark room where he kept, curiously, not only his photo equipment but also his organ.

He then opened his Bible in the dark, opening it in the chapter 20 of John. The story there tells of Jesus, arisen from the tomb, as he speaks to Mary Magdelene on Easter morning. Miles had a vision in which he saw the scene ... and this vision became the song: »Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.« It does not matter much whether visions of that kind enter in your frame of belief or not. The interesting thing is that Miles's is presented as a very »modernistic« version of an enlightening vision – Miles said about his first reaction afterwards: »I awakened in full light« – because it conceptualizes darkness viz. blindness not metaphorically but in the quite real setting of a ... dark room!

Well, here are the two versions of the songs, first that of Fontella Bass, followed by that, some years older, of Mitty Collier. The lyrics below follow Bass's version; Collier treated the traditional lyrics somewhat more freely, changing the text or adding to it.

Fontella Bass (1980) / Mitty Collier (1972), »In The Garden«:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear:
The Son of God discloses

And don't you know He walks with me
And He talks, He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
Oh, none other has ever known

He speaks and the sound, the sound of His voice
Oh, so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that He gave to me within, within my heart
Within my heart is ringing

Don't you know, He walks with me and He talks, He talks with me
And He tells me I am, I am His own
And the joy we share as we, as we tarry there
None other has ever known ... ... ...

Friday, May 06, 2011

Feel So Good

There are more live recordings of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue than of any other r&b outfit from the 1960s. Fortunately. Yes, I know, some of you will object that not all of what we hear on these recordings is worth listening, and I agree because Ike & Tina not only tended to repeat their show programme for years on end with little variation, but often they sound, if not plainly bored, purely professional. Well, true. Yet still, the recordings are as documents of their time of some historical value, for one. In addition, on several recordings we hear other singers as well who never became truly famous in their own right. And I do not speak about The Ikettes, who are famous after all, but of various other artists who toured with Ike & Tina.

United Superior LP # 7765 (1970)
One of the better known live recordings of the Ike & Tina Revue was made in 1964, in the Club Imperial & Harlem Club in St. Louis. Originally, this recording was released on Kent LP # 5014 (ST-514) »Ike & Tina Turner Revue Live«, and at the same time (that is, in 1964) in the UK on Ember LP # 3368. However, I possess this LP only as a re-issue, namely on United Artists / United Superior LP # 7765, released in 1970 (see cover). This re-issue, together with others of the same recording, was released with the title »Please, Please, Please«. (This title may, up to a point, be justified by the fact that the LP contains a 7-minutes rendering of »Please, Please, Please« by Tina, even though she is talking-preaching for the greater part; »Please, Please, Please« was out as a new Ike & Turner single in November '64, on Kent # 409. The song charted only locally, e.g. hitting the Top Ten in Memphis in December '64).

For almost half of the show, as released on this LP, we do not hear Tina Turner but other members of the Ike & Tina Revue. One song, »Feel So Good«, is performed by Jimmy Thomas who worked for many years with Ike Turner and in 1964 was part of the Ike & Tina Revue. In later years he made a solo career of sorts. The feelgood song »Feel So Good« is losely adapted from John Lee Hookers »Boogie Chillun« from 1948, and Hooker himself recorded several versions of it. The song was recorded by many others, not the least by Buddy Guy and Van Morrison. Jimmy Thomas's version is memorable in its own way, and I love how he kicks it off with the falsetto shriek »Hey!« ...

Jimmy Thomas: »Feel So Good« from the United Art./Superior LP 7765 (1970):

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Keep Goin' 'Round

Some weeks ago I posted something concerning the album »Think! (About It)« (People # 5602) by Lyn Collins ... well, I thought today we might just return to it for a second visit.

I'd like to present the two songs »Wheels Of Life« and »Just Won't Do Right«.The first is a midtempo-handclapper, driven forward by the bassline, the brass section, some dark jungleish drum and the piano. A classic r&b song, rather »southern« in feel and »Memphisian« in orchestration, with few signs of James Brown having had his hands in it. But that's just what I like about the song, for a change! ... The second song is a soul-ballad, and towards the end, and possibly in the first part as well, you can hear JB contributing (after all, he played piano on this recording and wrote the song). »Wheels Of Life« was recorded Jan. 26, 1971, at the Rodel Studios in Washington, D.C., »Just Won't Do Right« was put on tape in 1971 (maybe on February 15) at the Bobby Smith Studios in Macon, Georgia. James Brown himself during the 70s recorded several songs in this Macon studio, among them »Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing« (1970).

People LP »Think« (1972), backcover
Interestingly, both songs were the very first recordings which Lyn Collins made on the instigation of JB. They were released as a single, first on King # 6373 (1971), then on People # 45-2503 (1972, with a possible promo-version from the year before). Both songs were included on her first album »Think! (About It)«, and it's these versions which you can hear in the following.

Lyn Collins: »Wheels Of Life« / »Just Won't Do Right« from the People LP # 5602 (1972):

BILLBOARD, Sept. 16, 1972

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Funky Wednesday!

Freddie Robinson's »Off The Cuff« (1973)

Fred Leroy Robinson was born in 1939 in Memphis and grew up in Arkansas. From 1956 onwards, he was living in Chicago. He played for some years as member of Little Walter's band, then he gigged with Howlin' Wolf. The latter, however, didn't get along too well with Freddie (or the other way round) because Freddie had taken up studying at the »Chicago School of Music«. Freddie was to say later: »I worked with Wolf very briefly, because he's the only guy ... that I couldn't get along with too well. ... He didn't realise that I really did love his music ... He thought that just because I was studying that I didn't want to play the blues.«

Enterprise LP # 1035
From 1963 to 1967 Freddie was playing behind Vee-Jay recording star Jerry Butler, and in 1968 he briefly worked in the band of Ray Charles. Then, in 1971, we find him as a member of John Mayall's Blues Band (see the BILLBOARD ad from June 10, 1972 where he is billed as »Freddy Robinson«). In 1972 he recorded his first album for Enterprise (a sub-label of Stax Records), »At The Drive-In« (# 1025) (see the ad in JET-magazine as of Sept. 21, 1972). In the following year his second Enterprise-album, entitled »Off The Cuff« (Enterprise LP # 1035), hit the market. Finally, Freddie converted to Islam in 1975 and took on the name Abu Talib three years later. I gathered most of this information from the liner notes of  ACE CD # CDCHD 728 (»Freddy Robinson: Bluesology«, 1999). This CD also includes some of the songs from his 1972 Enterprise-album. However, the two songs you can hear in the following have been ripped directly from his album »Off The Cuff«.

The first song, »You Never Ever Miss Away (!)«, is downright funky, the second, »Changing Dreams«, may best be described as an after-hours-blues in the best Chicago-Tradition. You can hear several female background voices on the first tune, among them the voice of Darlene Love (former member of The Blossoms and The Crystals, but recording under her own name as well during the 60s).

Freddie Robinson (feat. Darlene Love):
»You Never Ever Miss Away« / »Changing Dreams« from the Enterprise LP »Off The Cuff« (1973):

BILLBOARD, October 20, 1973, p. 64

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hark The Voice!

»Sincerity«, »soul-searching«, »hip«, »commercial« ... with these (somewhat contradictory) words BILLBOARD in its July 15, 1967, number characterized an album that had just been released:
Sincerity and perception are two qualities quite evident in the soul-searching renditions of Miss Sondra Williams in "God Bless the Child," "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands," and "He Included Me." She is so hip in today's style of pop music, that many of the cuts seem commercial - "Heartaches" and "Need Somebody," for example.
Atlantic LP # R-003 (1967)
This is the album: Sondra Williams' »Hark The Voice«, released in July 1967 as R-003 in the Atlantic Religious Series. Once again we come across here the widely discussed contrast between the worlds of pop and gospel music, and the Billboard review dwells largely on this point. Atlantic Records could not claim, in 1967, any tradition in publishing gospel music, the »Religious Series« was begun only in that year (and then continued, half-heartedly, until 1970, resulting in less than 30 LPs). And even though Miss Sondra Williams poses in religious attire on the cover, she is billed, under her name, as »Miss Heartaches«, albeit in brackets. This nick-name is explained more fully in the sleeve notes: »When she appeared at the famous Apollo Theater in New York, the audience responded so enthusiastically to her performance that they named her "Miss Heartaches".«

Sondra Williams from Stockton, Calif., had been singing since her childhood days in the church of her father, Rev. Austin E. Williams. Together with Andre Crouch (as he is billed on the LP, actually Andra√© Edward Crouch, who contributed two songs for Sondra's album) and Billy Preston on organ she performed as member of the COGICs (»Church of God in Christ Singers«), who recorded two singles for the Simpson label (231, 273) between 1962 and 1965 and finally had an album out for Vee-Jay, in 1966 (Exodus 54: »Presenting the Cogics«). Using her own name Sondra Williams had a single, likewise on Vee-Jay (# 941: »He's Got The Whole World In His Hands« / »Heartache«), part of Vee-Jay's gospel-output. Then she recorded, as far as I could ascertain, nothing more until the time of the Atlantic LP.

»Just We Two« (Gordy LP 945, 1969)
In case few people today remember the name of the singer Sondra Williams, let them be reminded that she became better known under the name »Blinky« ... under this name Sondra recorded for Motown Records, after she got a contract in 1968. Between 1968 and 1973 Motown released nine pop singles by »Blinky«, one of them being a duet with Edwin Starr. Together with Edwin Starr she starred on the album »Just We Two«, and a number of further recordings were buried in the Motown vaults (and have recently come to light on some CD releases). In October 1971 an obscure LP from Motown hit the market, entitled »Rock Gospel: The Key To The Kingdom« (Motown M-743L). On this LP we find Blinky alongside Valerie Simpson, The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & The Pips, among others. More information was posted in a Motown-forum. After 1974 Sondra-Blinky turned again to gospel music.

Let us speak now of the Atlantic LP R-003. In fact, the songs on this album are a curious mixture of pop and gospel: Sondra's vocal performance in a number of songs dangerously borders on the style you would expect from a night-lounge singer, exhaling her smooth voice right into the electronic sound-nerves of a lip-touching microphone. In other instances, she sounds rather jazzy ... And, as if to counteract these secular features, Sondra is in general accompanied by a churchy organ, while the songs are ornamented by even more churchy, yet slightly disturbing chimes. You can hear that nicely on Sondra's version of Billie Holiday's »God Bless The Child«. (There is another, male, vocalist on this recording, which I could not identify.)

The second song that you can listen to in the following is »Need Somebody«. The sleeve notes credit this song to Sondra Williams (»Trad. Arr. Sondra Williams«), and indeed a song by this title is not known, before 1970, except from this LP. I cannot say whether it is identical with (or similar to) another song, viz. »You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Side«, recorded by the (Famous) Davis Sisters in 1958 on Savoy # 4101 (rec. on Aug. 23, 1957). Whatever. Billboard qualified this song neatly as »commercial«, and this is correct if this is to mean that it sounds rather like R&B than gospel, being thus a good example for »soul-gospel« (or whatever you like to call it). Sondra's faultless performance and the secular appeal of this and similar songs on the album may have been responsible for procuring Sondra the Motown contract she got the following year. Both songs, as the entire LP, have been recorded on March 21, 1967, at Audio Arts Studio, Hollywood. The session was produced by Richard Simpson who had already produced the COGICs.

Sondra Williams: »Need Somebody« / »God Bless The Child« from the Atlantic LP # R-003 (1967):