Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Most Promising

Today, I try to do something else. You can test your knowledge, or your intuition, in a little quiz.
     The following list shows the categories of the 1967 winners of the NATRA-Awards (NATRA = »National Association of TV and Radio Announcers«, basically an associ- ation of Afro-American DJs) and you are invited to guess the right answers. Some answers are pretty obvious and you'll easily guess. However, some others are quite surprising and I bet you won't hit the correct solution.
     The Award list was published 44 years ago today, on August 31, 1967 in JET (p. 56 f.).

     To see the correct answers, move your mouse beyond the dotted lines!

Top Female Vocalist ........... ARETHA FRANKLIN
Top Male Vocalist .............. JAMES BROWN
Top R&B Record ............... ARETHA FRANKLIN: »Respect«
Top LP .......................... ARETHA FRANKLIN: I Never Loved A Man
Top Vocal Group ............... DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES, THE TEMPTATIONS
Most Promising Group ........ GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS
Most Promising Duo ........... SAM & DAVE
Top Instrumental .............. BOOKER T & THE MG's: »Hip Hug-Her«
Top Gospel Group ............. THE STAPLE SINGERS
Top Producer ................... HOLLAND, DOZIER & HOLLAND; JERRY WEXLER
Top Jazz Record ............... CANNONBALL ADDERLEY: »Mercy, Mercy, Mercy«
Top Jazz Vocalist (Male) ............... LOU RAWLS
Top Jazz Vocalist (Female) ............ NANCY WILSON, NINA SIMONE
Top Blues Vocalist ...................... BOBBY BLAND
Most Promising Vocalist (Male) ....... O.V. WRIGHT
Most Promising Vocalist (Female) .... BETTYE SWANN
Most Promising Duo (Mixed) ........... BRENDA & THE TABULATIONS; THE FIVE STAIRSTEPS
Some unexpected names on this list, huh? Especially in the lower part ... Not that there is a single name that wouldn't deserve to be mentioned in it ... but clearly, seen from today's perspective, some of them come to mind immediately, while others do not. And one could also consider which names are missing from the list
... and would maybe be included if the list was drawn up today.

One of the more unexpected names on the list is, to my mind, O.V. Wright as the Most Promising Male Vocalist. Well, in hindsight, his being mentioned was fully justified, but how many would have known in summer 1967? He had started out, on Goldwax, in 1964 and moved to Backbeat the following year. In 1967, he was nicknamed »The Nucleus of Soul« and had considerable success with »Eight Men-Four Women«. At any rate, he lived up to the promise of the 1967 list during the following years. He came to be one of the greatest soul singers of all times. It is fair to say that today he is best remembered for his truly wonderful songs »Ace Of Spades« (1970) and »A Nickel And A Nail« (1971). My favorite song of O.V. Wright is »When You Took Your Love From Me« (rel. in Feb. 1971 and in the charts up against Marvin Gaye's »What's Going On«). It is deeply moving and has beautiful lyrics spicked with poetical, strange and at the same time curiously appropriate metaphors. And nobody like O.V. Wright could have performed this tune with the same intensity. Promise delivered!

O.V. Wright: »When You Took Your Love From Me« on Backbeat # 620A (1971):

Monday, August 29, 2011

Her Melody Lingers On ...

Dinah Washington born 87 years ago today

During the last weeks, I posted the »press item of the week« on Monday. Well, it won't do today, though there will be press items. Today is Dinah Washington's birthday, and this calls for celebration.

Baptized Ruth Lee, »Dinah« was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Aug. 29, 1924. She was one of the greatest voices of 20th century music. Hailed by many for her ob- vious talent, others criticized her for sell- ing her soul and voice out to commercial MOR pop. But hers was without doubt the rare talent that couldn't be undone by the choice of unsuited material. She could sing everything, and she did. There are obvious parallels to the career of Aretha Franklin here. (Fittingly, the only tribute album ever recorded by Aretha was devoted to Dinah.)
     Dinah led a stormy life that ended much too soon by an overdose of sedatives. During the last five years of her career, everything she did and said was closely monitored, and often blown up, by the rainbow press (mainly by the tabloids for the black market). By her vocal artistry and her stage performances Dinah had earned herself a dozen nicknames: »Miss D«, »The Queen«, »Great Dinah« ... in early 1960, she was billed as »The Unforgettable Queen of Songs«. Yet, after a pistol threat charge, she wasn't amused to find herself billed as »Pistol-packin' Mama« in front of a night club.
     Her volatile personality, to put it mildly, is legendary. Anecdotes about her abound, and we fortunately posess the fine biographical study by Nadine Cohodas (Queen. The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, New York 2006), arguably one of the most captivating and well-researched artist biographies. Shyness was an un- known feeling to Dinah, or so it must seem to the public. (After her death, many details came to the fore that shed a somewhat different light on her private per- son.) She often flew into a rage and was cussing in public. Her favorite expression was said to be »j.a.m.f«, i.e. »jive ass motherfu**er«. When she arrived at Sammy Davis's marriage party, she was told to go around to the back door. »I guess you know I told them where they could go« was her reply. Once in a while, she insulted the audience while on stage, and this brought her even charges of anti-Semitic remarks in Jan. '63. (The night club owner of Pittsburgh couldn't prove his case, though, and the charge was dropped.) Apart from that, she frequently arrived late at an engagement or walked out of concerts, sometimes she didn't show up at all. When a dress designer presented her a $700 bill, Dinah allegedly threatened her with a pistol.
     By mid-1960, she had 6 ex-husbands and speculations about no. 7 were under way. She received roses and cards saying »From your Egyptian servant«, but even- tually she didn't marry the Egyptian S. Ares Omar  but went, in February 1961, into a Mexican registry office with Dominican actor Rafael Campos. She was wild on fancy dresses, mink coats and glitzy shoes. Her wardrobe consisted of several $6.000 furs, and once she said she doesn't wear earrings because »she has not been able to find any with a large diamond.« In order not to pass unobserved, she often wore showy wigs, gold-blonde or flaming red (... she could have swapped them with Etta James). Her apartment was filled with expensive luxury items, and when engaged in some club she demanded a private phone line to be installed.
     But it all boils down to one essential truth: She is unforgettable, and so is her voice.
* * *

At the beginning of May 1960, Mercury released another of her numerous LPs. The new album (Mercury # SR 60232) was simply called »Unforgettable«, after the title song. It was actually the follow-up to her hugely successful album »What A Diff'rence A Day Makes!« (rel. November '59), even though Mercury had put out still other LPs in the meantime. The title-song »Unforgettable« was already out as single in November '59, but the most remarkable song on the album was, also according to critical acclaim, »This Bitter Earth«, soon to become one of Dinah's signature songs. The rest of the album did in general not find much praise. Critics said that the album was proof of Mercury's strategy to capitalize on Dinah's »new- found pop acceptance«. That was to say that Dinah's way to pop stardom was paved with MOR ditties, or in other words: She sacrificed her very talent and being by selling herself out to the mainstream pop market. Well, economically it made sense. But there is no need to be over-critical about this album, because for once the Billboard reviewer got it right when he wrote about this LP:
»Dinah Washington proves why she's entitled to be called "The Queen." She takes a brace of pop tunes and infuses them with believability so that they take on the aura of classics. Her own type of blues feeling is injected into such songs as "I Understand," "This Love of Mine," Alone" and "The Song Is Ended"« (Billboard, May 30, 1960).
I think that is quite accurately observed and does justice to this album. Let me add that the songs were recorded with Joe Zawinul on piano (Dinah's close buddy and musical companion during that time) and the Belford Hendricks Orchestra. Recording sessions were held in New York, between July and October 1959. I chose two tunes from the album:  »The Song Is Ended (But The Melody Lingers On)«, which particularly befits my mood today, and  »A Bad Case Of The Blues«, which is indeed the »bluesiest« song on the album and not much remembered nowadays. The first was recorded in NYC in mid-1959, the second on September 28 of the same year:

Dinah Washington: »The Song Is Ended« / »A Bad Case Of The Blues« from the Mercury LP # SR-60232 (1960):

* * *
... couldn't stop here, anyhow, also in case you're waitin' for the usual press item of Mondays. Well, here they come. In tune with today's songs and today's occasion, I best put them into context by saying something about Dinah's life and career around the time the album »Unforgettable« was released. At that time, in May '60, she already had recorded her legendary duets with Brook Benton, and the first single had been released in January (»Baby You've Got What It Takes«). In mid-February, she had another recording session in New York, whose results were released later on the Mercury LP »I Concentrate On You« (This session produced, among other songs, the memorable »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good«). However, during the next months no sessions followed or were cancelled. The reason for that is that, in the first half of '60, Dinah was on a strenuous dieting trip. And this is where the press comes in.
     Already in January, the L.A. police had searched her local apartment and con- fiscated many bottles with pills. It was found that these were merely sleeping and weight reducing pills, so the matter ended here. Thing is, at any rate, that Dinah's diet didn't consist in eating less or differently, but in going on eating as before and trying to reduce the carbohydrate imput by swallowing lots of diet and reducing pills. (Elvis adopted the same strategy 15 years later.) The impact of all those pills, which seem to have had some effect, weakened Dinah to the point that she had to cancel (or, according to others, shorten) a recording date in March. In April, she denied »that she was "weak and near collapse" from following a rigid diet designed to make her shed poundage. "I never diet," Dinah snorted.« (quoted in Jet, April 21, 1960, p. 59). Three weeks before, the same magazine had published a curious photo of Dinah's unshod feet. It was reportedly taken during a recording session in Chicago (Jet, April 7, p. 37):

And of course there was the by-then common hint at her dieting, its effects ... and its motivation (the next husband-to-be!). Dinah went on negating any dieting, but to little avail. In May she was reported to have lost 35 pounds in 6 weeks, »primarily as a result of taking reducing pills and injections from a doctor«. Dinah gave in and finally admitted her dieting efforts, not without stressing of how cleverly she proceeded: »Her secret: reducing pills after taking meals.« Today's dietologists will be astonished to hear that this »diet« helped her to »confine her eating to only two meals a day, although they are often heavy«:

From EBONY, May 1960, page 110.

As you can imagine, Dinah's dieting didn't go as planned. Her physical condition deteriorated further and things became worse in summer. She collapsed again in June, during an engagement, and was still sick in July. Only a stationary medication in July could resolve, for the moment, Dinah's self-inflicted diet problems. She remained addicted to many kinds of legally prescribed pills (no dope, though). It finally killed her. May her soul rest in peace.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Holy Moses!

There is much to be learned from the Gospels [!] as an art form, just as the same is true of the Blues and the Spirituals. (S.D. Plumpp)
When funk and other urban forms evolved from soul music during the mid- 1970s and 1980s, they retained the energy, rhythms, textures, and stylings of gospel music. ... Many components of gospel music have been incorporated into popular music, where they have intermingled with new techniques and expressions and then recycled back into gospel. This cyclical process has ex- panded the foundations of gospel and popular forms, generating new styles in both traditions. (P.K. Maultsby)
In 1973, nobody was any longer able to tell gospel from soul or pop, musicallywise at least. The development within the gospel field which was to lead to the new forms of »contemporary« gospel was well under way by then. And after the musicologists discovered the obvious fact that much of r&b, soul and funk had evolved out of gospel music, some others started to realize how gospel in its turn was influenced by the trends in secular music. This was plain as well by 1973, and indeed the more important phenomenon: Many gospel artists were looking towards contemporary soul and funk in order to further developing their style. However, influences were mutual in many cases, and the best illustration for this I could think of is an ad from the EBONY October '73 issue. There, a chocolate brown lace-up platform stepper is offered to the benevolent regard of stylish customers under the soulful name of »Holy Moses«, and it comes with similar examples of deviant shoe fashion called »Wattstax« and »Knocked Out«:

There is a rumor that the shoe firm advertising guy was sacked after he proposed other models called »Unto Thy Lace« and »My Sole's Salvation«. (Unfortunately, he hadn't thought of »Rubber Soul« what might have saved him his job.)

* * *
However, funky gospel was the call of the day in 1973. The Loving Sisters heard that call eagerly, around the same time, and so did the Meditation Singers. They released two albums on Stan Lewis's Jewel Records between 1971 and 1973, the second of which was entitled »Alright« (Jewel # LPS 0071). This album fea- tures nine songs. They are a mixed bag, but all closely modelled, as to rhythm, harmonies and instrumentation, on contemporary soul and funk music. The one exception from that is the longest song on the LP, »A Mother's Prayer« (aka »If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again« or similarly), which has some more traditional churchy feel to it. Apart from this, we have soft soul gospel (»Jesus Is Always On My Side«, »Everything Is Gonna Be Alright«) and bluesier tunes (»He Will Take Care Of You«, »Trouble Will Be Over«).

The funkiest piece on the album is, without any doubt, »I Love My Jesus«. It was the obvious choice for the single that was released some weeks before the album (Jewel # 205, B-side »Trouble Will Be Over«). The bluesiest song of the LP, on the other hand, is arguably »Why«. Both songs feature the forceful voice of Ernestine Rundless prominently. Especially her strong and dynamic performance in »Why« reminds much of her '60s recordings, without sounding dated in any way. »Why« is clearly the house-wrecker on this album.

Happy Sunday all!
My thoughts today go to the people at the East Coast who have suffered from the terrible hurricane.

The Meditation Singers: »I Love My Jesus« / »Why« from the Jewel LP »Alright« (1973):

* * *
Sources for the citations above:
... and just as an afterthought: If you have wondered whose brush created the front cover portrait of Jewel LP 0071, little flattering as it is, I can tell you that the artist named on the back cover was a certain Cynthia Rodrigues ... didn't find anything out about her, though. I couldn't even determine whether she did other covers for Jewel or another record label.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    The Jewboy

    Jerry Leiber has died, aged 78. The sad news has been known for some days now.
    His is a name that needs no introduction, and so I won't give any. Just some words about his early years.

    He grew up in Baltimore, and his first language was Yiddish. His neighborhood was mainly Polish and Italian, with many Jews and blacks around. Jerry was one of the »Jewboys«. Aged 12, he moved to L.A. with his mother and sister. All was to begin there, and it was there that he teamed up with Mike Stoller. They had their first record out in 1951.
    In memoriam of Jerry Leiber I thought I might play today three songs: words by Jerry, music by Mike. The framed photo above shows them both seated at the piano; standing behind, Jerry Wexler from Atlantic (2nd from left) and the Coasters.
         Actually, Leiber & Stoller did not produce many songs over the decades, but almost all of them charted. Two of the most famous, and most widely covered over the years, are »Kansas City (Here I Come)« and »Hound Dog«. Equally popular are some tunes they wrote (or co-wrote) for the Drifters during the '60s, such as »On Broadway«.

    Kansas City. One of their first songs, written in 1952 for Little Willie Littlefield. Here, you can hear the version of Shirley Ellis, from her 1965 LP »The Name Game« (Congress # CGL-3003, mono). In order to fit her »female version«, the lyrics were changed to »... they got some crazy little fellows there and I'm gonna get me one« (instead of »they got a crazy way of loving there and I'm gonna get me some«).

    Shirley Ellis: »Kansas City« from the Congress LP »The Name Game« (1965, mono):

    Hound Dog. This song was penned in 1953 for »Big Mama« Thornton. There are quite a few anecdotes about how this happened and what the chemistry was like between the singer and Jerry. According to Jerry, the song had »a country-funky feel« (Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, with David Ritz: Hound Dog. The Leiber and Stoller Autobio- graphy, London - New York 2010, p. 62). Infamously, the song's lyrics, much to the dismay of Leiber, were changed substantially in order not to offend the white public when the song was re-recorded by a Tupelo-born celebrity. It was this version by Elvis that made the song worldfamous. The original lines, as written by Jerry, run »... quit snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more«, and appeared in Elvis's version as »... crying all the time. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine«. Jerry later said: »To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog ... Elvis's version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote« (Hound Dog, p. 94). Yet he also acknowledged that the tremen- dous sales success of Elvis's »Hound Dog« »took the sting out of it«, that is, he accepted the garbled lyrics, went along with it and cashed in on the credits. After
    all, Jerry Leiber was a song-seller, not a moralist. In the following, you can hear
    the rather unlikely cha cha cha-version of the song as recorded by Betty Everett in October 1963. Good thing is that Betty's version has the original lyrics. The song title is given as »Hounddog« on the cover, as »Hound Dog« on the label of Side 1.

    Betty Everett: »Hound Dog« from the Vee-Jay LP # 1077 (second release) »It's In His Kiss« (1964):

    On Broadway. One of the best-known songs of the Drifters. This tune was originally composed by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Mann had it conceived as »a Gersh- winesque kind of melody« (Ken Emerson: Always Magic in the Air. The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, London - New York 2005, p. 137), and Weil added the lyrics because she was infatuated with Broadway. However, the song eventually wasn't satisfying. So in January 1963, Mann & Weil took the song to Leiber & Stoller. They re-wrote it to a great extent, thus earning their credits. The version you can listen to in the following was recorded in the Uptown Theatre of Philadelphia on July 24, 1964, and released on Atlantic LP # # 8101 (Saturday Night At The Uptown) later that year. It certainly is the most unusual version of the song you are likely to hear: apart from the excitement of the crowd, the song is done »properly« in the first part, but gradually slips into an ad-hoc group improvisation in the second part. During their performance, the Drifters at one point change »Broadway« into »Broad Street«, »in honor of the Philadelphia thoroughfare« as the notes on the back cover duly remark.

    The Drifters: »On Broadway« (live) from the Atlantic LP »Saturday Night At The Uptown« (1964):

    * * *

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Press Item of the Week

    ... today from Billboard, March 20, 1961, page 3:

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    Soul & Spirit, But Mostly Spirit

    In July 1967, Atlantic placed an ad for the »Big Hit Albums of the Summer on Atlan- tic-Atco: 32 Exciting New Releases« (and this actually included seven LPs by Stax / Volt). In this ad, we find the illustrious names of Wilson Pickett, Carmen McRae, Percy Sledge, Herbie Mann, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, Arthur Conley, Darrell Banks, William Bell, Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Booker T & the MGs. And amidst the albums by these artists we have, quite singularly, also one Gospel album: »Shine On Me« by the Harmonizing Four, a male gospel quartet (and really a quintet if you include the guitarist).

    Atlantic LP # SD R-005 (1967)
    A great name in gospel music indeed! Accor- ding to most, the group was organized as early as 1927 in Richmond, Virginia. However, only in June 1943 they had their first recording session, in a New York studio. In the begin- ning, they performed as »Richmond's Harmonizing Four« (1943), »The Richmond Harmonizers« (c1947-8), »The Harmonizing Four of Richmond« (1951), but they dropped »Richmond« after the beginning of the '50s* (see note below). The known standard histories of gospel music will tell you the details of their career up to the '60s, and I can't go into this here. In 1957 they signed with Vee-Jay Records. They stayed with the Chicago label until it busted in 1966 (and had even a LP out on the ill-famed and short-lived Exodus label). Then, Atlantic took them on.
         Atlantic shortly before had started their Religious Series of LPs (remember Sondra Williams!). So, they rushed the Harmonizing Four into the studio in mid-April '67 and released their first Atlantic album three months later, number 5 in the Religious Series. As said above, it was called »Shine On Me« (Atlantic LP # SD R-005) and adorned with a colorful cover featuring Flower-Power bubblegum letters. Obviously, the cover was meant to convey a message of hipness; it was designed by Atlantic's Religious Series producer Richard Simpson himself. The similarity with other covers of the period, above all Gordy LP # 922 (The Temptations' With A Lot O' Soul, also from 1967), is striking. It seems that there was a real »cover war« going on between Motown and Atlantic.
    For the record, Gordy LP # 922 was released on July 17, '67, thus more or less about the same time as Atlantic LP # SD R-005; the copyright for Motown's album cover was filed on July 28, 1967. Thus it might be a coincidence that both covers are so remarkably similar. On the other hand, it doesn't look like pure coincidence. But, further information pending, there is no knowing who copied from whom, if so.

    However, there is nothing much »hip« or »contemporary« on this LP; nothing of the gos-pop or soul-gospel stuff which was about to stir the gospel scene already in '67 and was destined to dominate the following years. And it would have been hard on the Harmonizers to do so: first, because they had, for all changes in style and taste (they switched from acoustic to electric guitar in the early '60s), a very solid and continuous tradition; second, because they were rooted in close-harmony singing and thus very much focused on vocals, leaving them little possibility to adopt newer styles via the instrumentation. Well, I for my part am happy that they didn't, because they sound great. But I am less sure if the music critics and the respons- ables at Atlantic found it much to their liking at the time. Look just at the insipid Billboard review (see pic above, from the Sept. 2, 1967, issue p. 43): »The cele- brated Harmonizing Four have a meaningful album here, mostly of traditional material ...« »Celebrated« obviously means »of former days' fame«, and they do old stuff in the old ways (»traditional material«). And their album is »meaningful«. Hmm?? Can't guess what this was meant to say. And if you expect some more hymnic praise from the back cover of their LP you will be disappointed. Richard »the Bishop« Simpson, who wrote the notes, remained equally vague and insipid. He stressed the celebrity of the group and repeatedly urges listeners to listen to them as if it were for the first time ... and invites those few others who have really never heard them. The only line in which Simpson really tries »to sell« the group to a contemporary audience outside the gospel field proper is when he wrote: »Soul, spirit and deep conviction are contained in this album ... All of these qualities are evident ...« At least once he utters the magic word of these days and accords »soul« to the Harmonizers. But it would have been in vain, and unfortunate as well, to turn the Harmonizing Four into something else. For they were true to their roots:
    »"The Harmonizing Four were kind of hanging back," says folklorist Vaughan Webb at the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, near Roanoke. "They were in this realm between the old stand-up-straight quartet singing and the more modern music." Webb was one of a group of researchers who, a quarter century ago, tracked down many of the then-living quartet singers to interview them. "The Harmonizing Four had a stronger grip than most groups on the roots of that tradition," he says.« (read more here).
    The above-quoted Billboard critic was right in one thing, though, namely in singling out the title tune »Shine On Me« for special praise. It is truly a beautiful piece of »musical pastiche«, done in a narrative style. Alas, it goes on for almost 7 minutes. The remaining songs, with the exception of the closing »House, Picture & Prayer« all remain within the conventional 2-3 minute limit. To honor the decade-long tradition of the Harmonizing Four, I decided to post two hymns which underline their glorious »harmonizing« of old ... and probably what they did best. Both songs are credited as traditionals, and the first was sung and recorded by many gospel greats: »If I Can Help Somebody« was done by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, among others. »This Rock Is Jesus« was, at first sight, never recorded before (or at least not under that title). But once again one tampered with a song's title, because »This Rock Is Jesus« is nothing but the known hymn »In Times Like These«, written by Ruth Caye Jones. She »reportedly found inspiration to write In Times Like These during World War II when she was moved by reading the words of 2 Timothy 3,1: "This know also that in the last days perilous times will come." As she read those words, inspiration for the song came, and she jotted lyrics on a small notepad she had in her apron pocket.« (Read more here). The song was recorded, among others, by Mahalia, Martha Bass, Albertina Walker and ... Little Richard.
         A nice twist in hearing these two songs together is that in the first you can hear Thomas Johnson (lead vocals, tenor) on lead, while the second song features the group's second tenor, Lonnie Smith (who occasionally played guitar and piano as well). It's nice to hear the contrast between the two different tenors. The other members of the '67 lineup were Joseph »Gospel Joe« Williams (baritone), Ellis Johnson (son of Thomas, bass) and Jesse Pryor (on guitar). Both Th. Johnson and Williams belonged to the group's oldest members, having been with them since the '30s ... or, rather more exactly, they were the very core of the group. (Accounts about and by Joseph Williams differ considerably, some making him one of the original 1927 members of the group, others maintaining that he joined only in '33 or '36!). Lonnie Smith joined in 1943 (when he replaced John Scott, the group's original tenor, who was enlisted in the Army), Ellis Johnson in 1958. Although there were additional members or substitutes during the '50s and '60s, the lineup of 1967 was very much that of 1943. And no doubt, you can hear that on their '67 recording, and I say this as a praise:

    The Harmonizing Four: »If I Can Help Somebody« / »This Rock Is Jesus« from the Atlantic LP # SD R-005 (1967):

    *Note: There were other groups known as »Harmonizing Four« in the '30s, one from Alabama, possibly spurious and mis-attributed, another one often mentioned in connection with Arthur »Big Boy« Crudup (he toured with some »Harmonizing Four« in 1939/40). However, the latter (about which I know nothing) are not identical to Richmond's Harmonizers.
    * * *

    Further reading (and omitting the standard gospel reference works which, at any rate, say only little about the post-'40s Harmonizers):
    For modern CD-releases, see here and here.
      This photo is taken from Kip Lornell: Virginia's Blues, Country, & Gospel Records, 1902-1943, p. 158.
      Buy his book here.

        Saturday, August 20, 2011

        I Walk the Tightrope

        Busy, busy, ... with various things, some nice and entertaining, some others that aren't. However, I wouldn't have this weekend pass without some music to hum and swing along. And to make it easy for today, without many words: I just found the right stuff on the Musicor LP »A Quartet Of Soul« (1967) which was presented on this blog about ten days ago. I then proposed a sinister-sounding, truly unique and beautiful piece of trance-soul ... well, it wouldn't do for today.

        From Billboard, March 4, 1967, p. 58
        Today, the right sound comes from Inez & Charlie Foxx. They certainly don't need much of an introduction. They did much to popu- larize U.S. soul music in the UK (see the photo from their British tour, taken in Feb. '67), and have become favorites of the Northern Soul scene. Famously, »Mocking- bird« made their name immortal, even though I am prepared to make myself some enemies and to happily defend the claim that Aretha Franklin's version of that song is way better.
             On the Musicor LP »A Quartet Of Soul« we find three songs by Inez & Charlie Foxx, and two of them are actually identical with their first single release on Dynamo (# 102, rel. in March '67). The single didn't chart, but I can't think of two sides on one 45 that deserved it less. They're really infectious! Dig them here:

        Inez & Charlie Foxx: »Tightrope« / »Baby Take It All« from the Musicor LP # MS3131 (1967):

        Monday, August 15, 2011

        Press Item of the Week

                     From JET, Jan. 21, 1960, p. 43.

        Sunday, August 14, 2011

        Fork Of The Road

        * In December 1968, Brunswick released The Gospel Soul of Big Maybelle (Brunswick LP # 754142).
        * Some weeks before, GRT (General Recorded Tapes, a Californian company active since 1966 and producing 4- and 8-track stereo cartridges) announced that it had now available Aretha Franklin's old Checker record The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin on 8-track. (GRT exploited Checker recordings since Jan.1, 1968, after an agreement had been reached: »General Recorded Tape has obtained exclusive duplicating rights to the catalogs of the Chess-Checker- Cadet und King libraries. ... The pacts strengthen GRT's broadening rhythm and blues catalog, which now encompasses material from Duke/Peacock ..., the Atlantic family of distributed labels, Scepter/Wand, Backbeat, Shout, and Sound Stage 7«, see Billboard Dec 30, 1967, p. 33).
        * In 1969, Minit released The Soul of Gospel (Minit LP # S 24021 / 40021) by the Robert Patterson Singers (the LP had been actually recorded live in Frankfurt, Germany); later, problably in the early '70s, this was followed up with the LP Gospel Soul on Sunset, a German pressing this time (Sunset LP # 50305).
        * In September 1969, Checker re-released Aretha Franklin's album Songs of Faith: The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin (orig. Checker # 10009 from 1965), and they did it again in May 1972. The latter re-release prompted this biting commentary in JET (May 18, 1972, p. 60): »When white-owned record com- panies compete, they really go for blood, like officials at Checker records releasing again their almost eight-year-old album, The Gospel Soul Of Aretha Franklin, with a new cover, just as officials at Atlantic records are getting ready to release Aretha's first gospel album in eight years.«
        * In 1969, also Motown jumped on the Gospel Soul-train and released Shades of Gospel Soul (Motown LP # MS 701), today a rarely found LP containing 10 tracks by Detroit gospel singers.
        * Not to miss this trend, Specialty put out two albums featuring old recordings by Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers under the title The Gospel Soul of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, the first volume in 1969 (Specialty LP # SPS- 2116), the second in November 1970 (Specialty SPS-2128).
        And then we have, from around the same time, The Gospel Soul of Bessie Griffin (Savoy LP # MG-14233). Hers was still a great name in gospel music, and you could hear her last Sunday on this blog. Phyl(lis) Garland in her book The Sound of Soul (Chicago 1969) named Bessie Griffin, alongside Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, Clara Ward, Alex Bradford and James Cleveland, among the »leading interpreters« in the »gospel music of today« (p. 64).

        Savoy LP # MG-14233
        It's not exactly known when Bessie Griffin's Savoy-LP was released. Traditionally it is assigned to 1968, but there is one detail which points to the following year: The song »At The Fork Of The Road« (you can hear it below), written by Frank Williams and accredited to Planemar Music (via Herman Lubinsky tied to Savoy!), was filed for copyright on September 3, 1969. As this song is an original recording on this LP and was, as far as I can see, never recorded before by any singer, chances are that the copyright claim and the release of the LP happened at about the same time, thus in 1969. And some other songs of the LP, credited to Bessie Griffin through Lubinsky's Planemar Music Co., were likewise filed the same day. Anyhow, in 1969 the Gospel Soul-craze was at its peak, and Bessie Griffin's album fits neatly into that year.

        On the back cover of the LP, we find »The Soul Sounds are on Savoy!« written in capitals. Well, seen from today's perspective this boastful claim hardly stood the test of time if you consider that this album has remained quite obscure to the present day (and is even listed under the wrong title, as Come Ye Disconsolate, on the otherwise useful pages at Tony Cummings, who called this album »unremarkable except as a great example of her voice« (here), added to the con- fusion by saying that Bessie Griffin recorded »an album with the Gospel Pearls entitled 'Gospel Soul' on Sunset, a subsidiary of Liberty.« There was a Liberty LP by Bessie Griffin (LRP 3310/7310), but it was called The Gospel Peals Starring Bessie Griffin and released back in July 1963. An album called Gospel Soul was put out on Sunset, but it featured the Patterson Singers and was released much later (see above). So far, I could therefore not corroborate what Cummings wrote about Bessie Griffin's presumed Sunset-album.

        Since Bessie Griffin's album is somewhat shrouded in mystery and does not seem to be much known, I felt that the notes on the back cover might be of a certain general interest; you can read them on the photo to the left. The LP contains ten songs, and one of those, »Let Him In Your Heart Today«, is a duet of Bessie with her husband Spencer Jackson. Some songs are original recor- dings, others like »Blessed And Brought Up« or »It's Running Time«, are presented here in new versions but go back to the time when Bessie was touring with the Caravans in 1953/4: »Blessed And Brought Up« is actually the same song as »I've Been Blessed And Brought Up By The Lord«, recorded in Dec. '53 or Jan. '54 with the Caravans and released on States # 137 (and Gospel LP # 3008 He Won't Deny Me). And the LP also features »Come Ye Disconsolate«, for many a kind of signature song of Bessie, as she performed it since the days she had come first to Chicago in 1951.

        It's interesting to see, at any rate, how old songs got re-packaged on this Savoy-LP. A good case in point is »It's Running Time«. On the face of it, no other song by this title is known up to 1969. Yet also this song belongs to Bessie's repertoire of 1953/4: She recorded it, together with the Caravans, in Jan. '54 under the title »Let Us Run (While It's Running Time)« (States # 140). And the year 1969 saw a stiff competition regarding that song: Albertina Walker (who had shared the studio with Bessie back in 1954) re-recorded that song on her album The Famous Caravans: Where He Leads Me (Gospel LP # 3080, 1969), and here the song appears as »Run While The Sun Is Shining«. It is plainly a nightmare for every serious-minded discographer!

        Well, it shouldn't overly trouble us, we sorted it out by now. Let's listen instead to two songs from Bessie Griffin's album. I propose one from among the original recordings, »At The Fork Of The Road«, and her re-recording of the classic »It's Running Time« (aka »Let Us Run«). The first is a soaring hymn, and Bessie bestows upon us a emotive, spiritful delivery. The second tune, much better known (if not in Bessie's version of 1969), is a fast-paced gospel boogie.
        I wish you a pleasant and peaceful Sunday!

        Bessie Griffin: »At The Fork Of The Road« / »It's Running Time« from the Savoy LP # MG-14233 (c.1969):

        P.S. / Info from the back cover of Savoy LP # 14233:
        »Notes and supervision: Fred Mendelsohn
        Recording: Rev. Lawrence Roberts
        Mastering: Medallion Studios
        Fabricated by Modern Album of New Jersey Inc., Flemington, N.J.«

        Saturday, August 13, 2011

        Tragical Mystery Song

        Some months ago, I wrote a lengthy piece about the kiddie song »On The Good Ship Lollipop«. I argued there that the song, innocent as it seems at first sight, may have a hidden dimension which already has proven attractive to subversive artists, but which still awaits detection by minds of a more bourgeois inclination. Now, I recently came across another version of the song, recorded in 1965 by no one less than Ruth Brown. But why, for all heavens' sake, should an established r&b-artist the like of Ruth Brown waste her voice and talent on such a ditty? I thought about it, did some research, and eventually understood that an answer to this question must take several things into consideration.

        »... blues belters Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown ... after they wailed
        at a "down-home" soul session« (JET Feb. 27, 1964, p. 66).
        Most importantly, we have to consider at what point in Ruth Brown's career she went into the studio to record this kiddie song. It was towards the end of '64 or the beginning of '65, and her career was stalled by then. Her name still rang with the many hits she had had during the '50s (famously making Atlantic »the house that Ruth built«), but Atlantic dumped her in '61. She then recorded for Philips, Decca, Brunswick and, finally, Mainstream; she charted the last time in '62.

        What happened to her career between 1964 and 1966 can easily be gleaned from the following quotations (in chronological order):
        »YES, SIR, THAT'S MY BABY ... (2:10) - Sensational comeback for Miss Brown here. Side has a very contemporary sound ...« (Billboard, Feb. 22, 1964, p. 3)
        »Singer Dee Dee Warwick, who used to work as a background singer on recordings for other stars, stepped back into her old role recently for friend Ruth Brown when the latter singer recorded some new sides.« (Jet, March 12, 1964)
        »Mainstream is being developed by owner Bobby Shad as a class album line, with singles strictly promotional in nature ... The new pop product features ex-r&b vocalist Ruth Brown ...« (Billboard, Feb. 13, 1965, p. 30)
        »A new and more interesting Ruth Brown emerges on this disk [i.e. Main- stream # 56034]. Well known as the top-selling rhythm and blues vocalist, she sheds the blues mantel for smooth, sophisticated ballads.« (Billboard, Feb. 20, 1965)
        »Blues shouter Ruth Brown gave a successful performance at local Playboy. ... Miss Browne's routine is based on degrees of the blues ... She is a straight- forward performer, avoiding gimmicks with a slight vibrato helping to achieve a comforting effect« (Billboard, Jan. 15, 1966, p. 18)
        »Folks who reminisce "what ever happened to Ruth Brown, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter ... etc.?" should be pleased to know that these and other stars of a few years ago appear at the Apollo beginning Dec. 9« (Jet, Dec. 15, 1966, p. 64).
        The picture emerging from those quotations is quite clear: Already in February 1964, Ruth Brown was accorded a »sensational comeback« which at the same time insinu- ates, between the lines, that before she was no longer a relevant star. Note also that her record is praised for its »contemporary sound« (which again insinuates, willingly or not, that before her music was out of touch with contemporary taste). The notice from JET (March 12) stresses that she had recorded »new sides« and props this up with the mention of Dee Dee Warwick. The two reviews from Billboard (Feb. '65) put Ruth Brown in the pop field and describe her as an »ex-r&b vocalist«, insinuating that she had become someone else by now. This is made more explicit in the second review where her art is called »new and interesting«, underlining the fact that she has »shed the blues mantel« which is the same message all over again: Ruth Brown has reinvented herself and left r&b behind. Alas, when success did not come, she was in 1966 re-packaged into the r&b-artist viz. »blues shouter« mould, only to finish up towards the end of the year in a list of »stars of a few years ago«, stuff to reminisce about: »What ever happened to Ruth Brown«? And so, in 1966, she was back being an old-fashioned »blues shouter« after she already had been called a »blues belter« in a JET-issue of 1964 (see the pic above), right when she was about to start her comeback. If you look at the pic above, you also note that Ruth Brown is shown together with Big Maybelle, and this is highly emblematic after all: Big Maybelle was another »blues belter« of days past and »ex-r&b vocalist« whose comeback failed in the '60s.
        * * *
        Ruth Brown performing at benefit show
        at Statesville Penitentiary, Aug. 1963
        Several record companies after 1962 struggled to get Ruth Brown back on the charts, and the latest effort for a long time to come was made by Mainstream Records in 1965. This effort was doomed, however, and her »comeback« faltered. The above-quoted passages tell the story.
             Ruth Brown described the mid'60s as her »wil- derness years«. She had kids to look after, and in June 1965 married a second time (the police patrolman W. C. Blount). In her autobiography, she wrote about her Mainstream album (entitled Ruth Brown '65, nicely advertising her »contemporary appeal«, and released in February '65):
        »A mercurial little guy named Bob Shad signed me up for an album he called Ruth Brown '65. I was impressed with the trouble he took and the instrument- ation he used ... There were two Nellie Lutcher tunes, "Hurry on Down" and "He's a Real Gone Guy," and a slow, dreamy version of the old Shirley Temple classic, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."« (Ruth Brown with Andrew Yule: Miss Rhythm. The Autobiography of Ruth Brown, Rhythm and Blues Legend, New York 1996, p. 165.)
        For the rest of it, Ruth Brown passes much of the '60s over with silence in her autobiography. As for the album Ruth Brown '65, I won't go into details (if inter- ested, see here and here). Frankly, I don't think the LP does contain anything near a song which could qualify as an authentic ear-catcher in 1965. And I have been musing, so far in vain, what was in the minds of Bob Shad and those responsible at Mainstream Records when they signed Ruth Brown. Mainstream Records, founded in spring 1964, was basically a Jazz label. In February 1965, Mainstream was reported being »in switch to pop« (see Billboard, Feb. 13, 1965, p. 30), and a spokesman of the label mentioned the new recordings by Ruth Brown explicitly in this regard. Thus they wanted to release »pop«, but what they did release was anything but.

        This brings us back to the ditty »On The Good Ship Lollipop«. Mainstream had chosen it, together with »Hurry On Down«, for the single to promote the album (incidentally, it was to be Ruth Brown's only single for the label). What we have in the version as recorded by Ruth Brown is an arguably over-orches- trated Bigband- Blues adaption of the song. She herself called it »slow« and »dreamy«, and I am at a loss of what to call it. Certainly, Ruth Brown's version must not be included among the song's (potentially) subversive readings. But it nevertheless is interesting for what it is: Ruth Brown's tragical mystery song of 1965 when a producer's whim and a stalled career led her to apply her vocal artistry to this tune.

        Ruth Brown: »On The Good Ship Lollipop« on Mainstream # 611 (1965):

        Thursday, August 11, 2011

        Citrullus lanatus var. vulgaris

        These are depressing days. I'm in a foul mood and not happy at all with what I was able to accomplish lately. Can't sleep until dawn, but the many things awaiting my attention won't go away. They're always lingering in the back of my head. Mean old world. So I felt I need something strong today, a force of nature. The obvious choice for this in a blog like mine is Tina.
             And mind, being not overly satisfied with myself and the world at the moment does easily put me into a polemical frame of mind. This is just as well and kiss my ass. Start doin' it here for a beginning:

        Incidentally, these asses were meant to lure the eyes of Billboard-readers, in the issue of Oct. 19, 1968 (»Here Come De Blue Thumb«), to the fact that Bob Krasnow shortly before had established the Blue Thumb label. One of the first LPs released by Blue Thumb was Ike & Tina Turner's »Outta Season« (BTS-005).
             Polemically-wise, speaking about Ike & Tina Turner always warms my heart. Because there is one thing which since years has been upsetting me regularly, viz. What the heck is wrong with Ike & Tina? Browsing through the net and turning endless pages of music-related books makes you think that Ike & Tina were a minor phenomenon quite unsuited to be treated in detail, commercial to the bone, selling their souls to every record company that would offer them a fat cheque (or better still, cash), trusting on Tina's oversexed stage antics to sell their songs, with Ike being a mediocre composer and Tina a willful bitch. Of course, we also have the die-hard fans of Tina Turner mainly grown on her post-70s career, yet in most Soul circles her very notoriety made her name, it seems, almost a taboo. Professional music writers tend to ignore her pre-80s career. Mean old world.
             But you can go on for weeks badmouthing Ike & Tina and you won't harm them a bit. Theirs is a status much beyond the vain brabble of latter-born mortals. Yes, they were looking for the easy buck, and Ike's life can fill ten volumes of stories that will have your hairs stand on end. Both, and Tina in particular, were a force of nature the like of which you won't find a second time. And naturally gifted at that. They never recorded something really bad, no matter how unsuitable the circumstances and how distracted (or bored) the artists in question. I would like to remind you of what Nat Freedland wrote in a concert review: »As always, the biggest mystery about Ike & Tina Turner is why they aren't among the superstars of contemporary pop. Tina is such a fine singer and such a superlative performer that any reaction less than adulation seems pointless« (Billboard, Oct. 16, 1971).

        * * *
        Feeling better now, having said this. Mean old world, don't come knockin' at my door again. On to the Blue Thumb album. The first to strike one is the cover as has been often noted (see here and here).

        Basically, you see Ike (on the front cover) and Tina (on the back cover) biting into water- melons slices, i.e. slices of citrullus lanatus var. vulgaris. Their faces are smeared with a white paste, creating the unusual effect of whiteface. It was all part of a thought-out message as Bob Krasnow, owner of Blue Thumb, explained: »It was a parody. All the white guys were doing blues records then, so I thought, 'Hey, the only way a black act can do the blues now would be to put 'em in white- face,' you know? We had plenty of problems with that cover. I mean, people had threatening my life« (quoted in Turner/Loder: I, Tina, page 150). Krasnow's love for creative cover artwork is known,and thus it is not astonishing that he came up with the Turners' whitefaces: »One day, Ike Turner complained to Krasnow that white kids were making a fortune playing the blues and Turner, a black man and a life-long blues musician, was still scuffling. The result ... was the Outta Season cover, depicting Ike on one side and his wife Tina on the other, each in whiteface makeup and eating a huge slice of watermelon. Outta Season was nominated for a Grammy, for its cover design.« (quoted from Bill DeYoung: »The Story of Blue Thumb Records«, Goldmine no. 412, read it here).

        Tina is present even twice on the album sleeve. Once sinking her teeth into the citrullus lanatus, once inside the gatefold cover where she appears in a sexy black dress, striking a soul-power pose (or whatever it was meant to be). Greil Marcus accorded her a »fabulous and dazzling sexiness breaking through even on a gag photo.« However, if you consider how Tina would appear only little later in the early 70s during her stage shows, this photo is still a far cry from what was to come. Seen in this light, Tina here appears rather like a bourgeois cocktail party guest who lost her stiff countenance after a gin or two!

        The most thorough analysis of the melon-cover was put forward by Susan Fast in her article »Bold Soul Trickster: The 60s Tina Signifies« (in: Laurie Stras (ed.): She's So Fine. Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music, Farham 2010, pp. 203-234).

        Susan Fast writes: »In a carnavalesque reversal, Ike and Tina turn the racist legacy of blackface minstrelsy in on itself in a grotesque parody, while at the same time complicating the desire for the Other that the mask of traditional minstrelsy symbolized. Instead of whites desiring blackness ... we have blacks desiring whiteness that desired blackness. The image suggests that whites who appropriate black culture do so in superficial or stereotyp- ical ways - by eating watermelons, the fruit so often used in racist caricatures of blacks or by dabbling in black music. But the prominence of the black hands - their foregrounding - belies Ike and Tina's racial identiy, as do the knowing winks given by both.« (pp. 203, 205). And note that both actually have already bitten off a piece of the slice! Not the least achievement of Ike & Tina in late 60s soul to have their faces put on this innovative cover, even though Bob Krasnow can, I think correctly, be credited with the idea.

        As for the music, the first of Ike & Tina's Blue Thumb LPs features mostly standard blues songs. Two of those, Little Walter's »Mean Old World« and B.B. King's »Rock Me Baby«, you can hear in the following. Of all their LPs, »Outta Season« (and its follow-up, »The Hunter«) is certainly the most blues-oriented; Bob Krasnow, in a 1971 Rolling Stones inteview, called it »gutbucket R&B ... like we have on our Blue Thumb record ... really blues.« All songs were played in an almost classical mode, very close to how the blues players from the Chicago scene had done them before. This, on the other hand, was to become the cornerstone of critical remarks con- cerning this album, and many since have repeated what Greil Marcus wrote in that regard. He found little to recommend in the album:
        »The material, almost all blues, looks fine ... The possibilities for letting Tina loose seem terrific. Maybe so, but it doesn't happen. All the cuts are done straight, without invention or excitement. The one saving grace is Ike's guitar playing, very tough, melodic, at times almost dazzling, great debt owed to BB King and all that, but in fact a good lesson for young musicians who can't make their instruments speak but who don't want to sound like Blue Cheer either. But that's it. The band sounds tired and bored, as if they've done it all a million times before and just couldn't be bothered.« (Quoted from here).
        This is not without some justification. But, again, it throws the baby out with the bath water (and, I'm tempted to add, also hacks the tub into pieces). I think Ike & Tina still did a terrific job. They couldn't do otherwise, at least not before the mid-70s when everything fell to shambles eventually.
             Just enough for today. In a future post I will say something about the ways the Turners were related to the Blue Thumb label. At the moment, you will have to do with Ike & Tina's gutbucket blues recorded in late '68 (as far as we know). I can imagine many a fate much worse than this. My Weltschmerz is, I can assure you, much eased by listening to Tina's blues performance. Mean old world! If you're still eager to read more about Ike & Tina right now, check out Jaime Danehey's Ike & Tina Project or read this page.

        Ike & Tina Turner: »Mean Old World« / »Rock Me Baby« from the Blue Thumb LP # BTS-5 »Outta Season«:

        Tuesday, August 09, 2011

        Trance Off

        In the year 1967, even the most unlikely record companies jumped upon the soul train. Well, New York's Musicor-Dynamo was not really an unlikely company to do that: their roster included a few artists who made some noise in the R&B-pop field. From 1967 onwards, most of them were relegated to the subsidiary Dynamo (Luther Dixon's label), including Inez & Charlie Foxx, Barbara & her niece Brenda, Kenny Ballard, Tommy Hunt and a latter day version of The Platters. On the other hand, Musicor's roster was a colored bunch and included also C&W-singers, bigband outfits, Puerto Rican musicians and, securing the survival of the company over the years, Gene Pitney. If you look at Musicor's discography from 1967 onwards, who will find that the bunch got ever more colored after that, and only a few artists managed to have more than two single releases.

        Musicor LP # MS3131 (1967), cover
        However, in 1967 Musicor went for it: »... with best wishes from Musicor, the home of soul!« was the final salute to those who read the notes on the back cover of Musicor LP # MS3131. This album, released in late May or early June '67, was called »A Quartet Of Soul« and included 12 songs by four of Musicor-Dynamo's most successful soul artists. (It was later reckoned as "first volume" because similar anthologies were to follow). The adjective-stuffed (»amazing line-up«, »fantastic teaming«, »terrific new sides«, »searing vocalistics« ...) sleeve notes further proclaim that »if soul is the thing, then Musicor has it in generous quantities« and eventually arrive at this conclusion: »This is absolutely a rocking jamboree of soul that will make you think you're right there at a wild and stombing live performance.« Winding that pompous message down considerably, Billboard (June 10, '67), in a bland and noncommittal review, declared that the album was »a truly all-star soul package with plenty of pop potential« and had »diversified and dynamic flavor«.

        The Billboard writer had a point, though. The album is diversified and dynamic, as an anthology should be. And there is one song that stands truly out from the rest. It certainly isn't rockin' soul, but, if the truth be told, I don't know what it is. I'm speaking of »Too Young To Be Fooled« by Barbara & Brenda (see a nice picture of them here). What is it? Psychedelic R&B? Soul in the Sky With Diamonds? You tell me. No surprise, in any case, that the song has attracted some attention and was repeatedly sampled on CD: you find it on Ace's »Where The Girls Are, Vol. 2« and on Bear Family CD RPM 212 (»It Takes Two: 23 Prime R&B / Soul Duets«). Originally, the hypnotic song, written by Barbara Gaskins, was released in Feb. '67 as the soulful B-Side on Dynamo # 103, together with »If I'm Hurt You'll Feel The Pain«.

        The song takes you right off the ground. Listen here and trance off.
        It is utterly beautiful.

        Barbara & Brenda: »Too Young To Be Fooled« from the Musicor LP # MS3131 (1967):

        Sunday, August 07, 2011

        Way Up

        Bessie Griffin (born Arnette Broil) hailed, like Mahalia Jackson, from New Orleans. In 1947/8, she made her first recordings in New York with the »Southern Revi- valists of New Orleans« (aka »The Southern Harps«).
        »As a member of the Southern Harps, Griffin ruled New Orleans. On two different occasions, once while the Southern Harps were singing "Just Over The Hill" and once during "I Want To Rest", overwrought listeners actually died during the performances. But the Southern Harps never broke through, despite Griffin's house-wrecking abilities« (Robert Darden: People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, New York 2004, p. 256).
        Following an invitation by Mahalia Jackson, with whom she was later often compared as to her vocal style and impressive contralto voice, she came to Chicago in 1951. She then toured during the early Fifties with Albertina Walker and her Caravans. In the later '50s, she performed in and around Chicago as well as in New Orleans, but by singing alone she only made a modest living and therefore took up some other jobs besides, e.g. as a radio D.J. She later said that she had to use ramshackle cars while touring, those cars having »maypop tires«, that is they »may pop any moment«.

        1958 we find her in Los Angeles with Art Rupe and under contract to his influential Specialty Records. Robert »Bumps« Blackwell, producer at Specialty, had the idea, in 1959, to stage a gospel musical which eventually was called »Portraits in Bronze«. This musical opened in Los Angeles in September 1959 and brought Bessie consider- able fame; Steve McQueen and Bette Davis attended her performances. During the following years she would be appearing on several TV evening shows, performing parts of the said gospel musical.

        From Jet-Magazine, Sept. 27, 1962

        From Billboard, Dec. 8, 1962

        »Portraits in Bronze« had great importance not only for Bessie Griffin's career, but also for the general impact and crossover appeal of gospel music. Tony Cummings, in a biographical sketch of Bessie Griffin that is worth reading (»Bessie Griffin: A pioneering, and largely forgotten, giant of black gospel music«), remarked that »Portraits signalled the first move of gospel into clubs and coffee houses«. Thus, in 1960 not only Bessie Griffin appeared on the stages of night clubs and even recorded in secular venues, but a number of other gospel singers and outfits did the same, most notably the Clara Ward Singers or The Meditation Singers. A short notice in JET (March 31, 1960, page 63) announced that »the Show Boat Lounge in Las Vegas has someting new in entertainment. While players seek to beat the dice and slot machines, Sister Bessie Griffin and her gospel quartet keep the joint rocking with song«. To perform in Las Vegas or in night clubs was anything but easy in the be- ginning since the religious tunes seemed rather out of place in this context, to put it mildly. Bessie called the music she was performing in secular venues »Pop-Gospel« and later explained how they got religious repertoire through to the public (those present and those buying her records, that is): »We didn't know how people would react to us shouting 'Jesus' so we'd sing 'My Saviour' or 'Master'«. But she also felt there must be a limit to her efforts at ingratiating her music with the tastes of a secular-minded public. That is why she once and again started deliberately singing slow and solemn hymns like »Old Rugged Cross« when the crowd was calling for uptempo shouters like »When The Saints Go Marching In«.

        Liberty LP # 13002 (back cover)
        The production of »Portraits in Bronze« was a big deal, as befits a major musical. The album which went along with it, Liberty LP # LMM-13002, boasted a »unique combination of gospel & jazz«. The packaging of the LP was as extravagant as the musical, the record being sold in a foldable sleeve with many photos and stately liner notes. However, the sleeve notes for the most part sound rather pathetical and come up with little but worn-out clich√©s. Just read this: »The story of a people - the soul music of a race born in debt, which lived in debt and died in debt. They sang when they were happy ... they sang when they were sad. This is Portraits in Bronze«. What is interesting, though, is that already back in 1960 the term »soul music« obviously had a certain currency and was considered idoneous for advertising a record of black gospel music. (Bessie Griffin would later again be packaged as a »soul artist« in her 1969 album »The Gospel Soul Of Bessie Griffin« (Savoy LP # 14322) but at that time the term »soul« had become ubiquitous and almost hollowed out by its ominpresence.)

        Bessie was accompanied in most songs by a undistinguished choir, the »Gospel Pearls«. Among the session players we find young Billy Preston (on piano & organ) who was later to make a big name for himself. In the following, you can listen to a traditional spiritual featuring Bessie Griffin solo without vocal backing. The song, famous enough, is entitled »Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child«. Both melody and lyrics go back to the time of slavery. It was a deplorable practice during that epoch to separate children from their mothers when sold to a new owner:
        »He took great pains to convince a farmer and his wife, in Chester county, of the iniquity of keeping negro slaves, but to no purpose. They not only kept their slaves, but defended the practice. One day he went into their house, arid after a short discourse with them upon the wickedness, and particularly the inhumanity of separating children from their parents, which was involved in the slave trade, he seized the only child of the family, (a little girl about three years old) and pretended to run away with her. The child cried bitterly, " I will be good - I will be good," and the parents showed signs of being alar- med. Upon observing this scene, Mr. Lay said, very emphatically, " You see and feel now a little of the distress you occasion every day, by the inhuman practice of slave-keeping.« (Quoted from Evert A. & George L. Duyckinck: Cyclopaedia of American Literature, Volume 1, New York 1856, page 270).
        But of course you can take the song's message in a more general vein and then it might be understood as a lament about the existential, albeit temporary (»some- times«!) solitariness of Man. A simple song, and Bessie does perform it seemingly simple. Yet how profound as she slowly, almost imperceptibly, glides downwards into an ever deeper register as the song goes on. Very moving and a great performance. And it nicely and convincingly validates Anthony Heilbut's verdict: »Bessie's TV appearances seldom show her at her best. She is not preeminently a rhythm singer, but she's always saddled with some pop-gospel jump tune. Occasionally she'll sing a real gospel hymn, and the difference is a revelation« (The Gospel Sound, p. 141). Now let the revelation come down on you:

        Bessie Griffin (feat. Billy Preston): 
        »Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child« from the Liberty LP »Portraits in Bronze« (1960):

        Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
        A long ways from home

        Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
        Way up in the heavenly land

        True Believer, way up in the heavenly land.

        * * *
        Anthony Heilbut's chapter on Bessie Griffin ( »Bessie Can Moan and Move a Moun- tain)« in his The Gospel Sound is essential reading.

        * * *
        POSTSCRIPT Aug. 20, 2011:
        For the song »Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child«, see also here: TokTokTok / Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.