Thursday, January 31, 2013

All is Gold that Glitters

(From Ebony, December 1959 issue, p. 169)
Today I went into the music bookstore I visit fairly often (obviously) and left it with a copy of Nadine Cohodas's Princess Noire. The Tumultuous Reign of Nine Simone (New York: Pantheon 2010). For different reasons I couldn't resist buying it, not the least because it was the hardcover edition and they hawked it for around 12 bucks. First thing you notice when taking the book in hand is its dust cover in gold and black (which, however, feels to the touch as if plastic would pretend to be calfskin leather ... very strange, tactily speaking). Once you remove the dust cover you'll be then eyestruck by the aureate splendour of the book cover itself that shines forth from beneath. Now whether Cohodas's book does merit all this gilded extravagancy I cannot yet say but the subject of her book certainly does.

Colpix LP 407 (not the truly original label
which has Colpix in red letters above, but
actually the 2nd label Colpix was using ...
but at least still in gold, compared with the
light blue of the following label versions)

That gold is somehow Nina Simone's colour I have always felt since I got to know her early Colpix LPs which came with a golden label, starting with her first Colpix LP 407 (The Amazing Nine Simone), recorded in July 1959 in New York.
1959 was the year when Nina Simone became a big name in the music business; in retro- spective, it certainly was the year which determined (and made) her later career, even though she herself at the time was still plan- ning to become a classical pianist and merely recorded jazz, folk, gospel and pop items to finance her piano study. »New Year 1959 found me ... with a hit record, a rising reputation, and no idea how to make the money I needed to finish my classical training«  she was later to say in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You (p. 63 f.).
Billboard ad, Sept. 28, 1959
But things went better than she thought (and she often thought only the worst to come anyhow), and the unexpected success of her Bethlehem recordings, in particular of her version of »I Loves You Porgy«, opened her many doors. The New York-based Columbia-Colpix took her under contract in April 1959 because King-Bethlehem had signed her only for one album (which had appeared in mid-1958 as Little Girl Blue). What is more, Nina Simone was dissatisfied with how she was treated and promoted by Bethlehem-King's Sid Nathan, and famously she even sold away her rights of the entire album for the sum of $3.000 (something she much regretted later since her first Bethlehem LP also features such popular tunes like »My Baby Just Cares For Me« ...). She was then not unhappy to be signed by Joyce Selznick of Colpix, especially because she was given a longterm deal. And Colpix had, obviously, greater material resources to promote her nationwide and maybe also more enthusiasm since the Colpix label had been founded only recently, in October 1958.
     Only little more than two months passed after signing the contract with Colpix, and Nina Simone found herself in a New York studio to lay down the 14 tracks in July '59, twelve of which were then released on her first Colpix LP The Amazing Nina Simone. Half of them were also released, in the course of '59, on three Colpix singles. One of those 45's, Colpix # 124, had the very felicitous combination of the uptempo gospel song »Children Go Where I Send You« with the old 1932 jazz standard »Willow Weep For Me« (the latter also recorded before by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington). The first song, with its wonderful climax towards the end, highlights Nina's piano playing (and few songs on the first Colpix LP actually do), while the second strongly puts her vocal art in evidence. There is much else to say about her first Colpix album, but I cannot do it tonight and it has to wait for another occasion sometime soon. So let's leave it, for today, at the two songs mentioned. And I guess there will be few persons around who do not share the view that with Nina Simone, all is gold that glitters:

Nina Simone: »Children Go Where I Send You« / »Willow Weep For Me« from the Colpix LP # CP 407 (1959):

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mostly Martha

mid-week gospel

Martha Bass (mother of the late Fontella) was picked by Chess/Checker to have her first LP out in early 1967 ... notwithstanding the obvious (and by this time proven) talent of Mrs Bass the fact that she got released on Checker was probably helped by the recent success her daughter had on the same label. But this needn't detract from the merits of Martha, because sometimes it needs just such coincidental and second-hand support in order to give people their due. Martha was to record three LPs for Chess/Checker in the late 1960s and on her first album, I'm So Grateful (Checker LP # 10022), we find a number of songs testifying to Martha's powerhouse voice. For a start, let's hear her overwhelmingly beautiful and heart-rending ballad »Mother's Plea« (recorded at Chicago's Ter Mar Studios, March 30th, 1966):

Martha Bass: »Mother's Plea« from the Checker LP # 10022 (1967):

(click to enlarge)

As is known, Martha Bass stayed for a little while with the Clara Ward Singers back in 1950 and she actually appears on less than a handful of Savoy recordings as member of the C.W. Singers. Afterwards she toured the churches of the South as a renowned house-wrecker. Her record contract at Chess/Checker then brought her reasonable fame even beyond the gospel circuit (and her name may have turned up occasionally before thanks to the success of her daughter Fontella). And indeed, the connection between mother and daughter was always a strong one, and they retur- ned to recording and performing together from the late 60's into the 1990s (including the 1993 CD Promises; for another recording of mother and daughter from the mid-1990s - incidentally the title song of Martha's first Checker LP - see here). Fontella even claimed that she was playing piano and singing background vocals on all of her mother's Chess/Checker recordings (a claim not fully substantiated, however).
      Nobody less than Chess's Gene Barge (who was responsible for much of the Checker output in the 1960s; see also below!) wrote the notes on the back cover of Martha's LP -  and while he did not miss to connect Martha to her then better-known daughter he also stressed, slightly enigmatically and in my view a bit out of propos, that both »sing in different categories« and thus »no problems confront them professionally.« You can read the whole bit here:

From the back cover of Checker LP # 10022
A number of songs on this album were recorded in March 1966 (including the above »Mother's Plea«), another bunch only several months later in October '66, including the traditional (?) »Everybody Will Be Happy (Over There)« and Roman Holmes's 1944 »What Manner Of Man Is This?«

Martha Bass (and uncredited choir):
»What Manner Of Man Is This« / »Everybody Will Be Happy« from the Checker LP # 10022:

* * *

Additional info:
(1) There is a re-release of this LP on CD, as recent as September 2011, on Cherry Red Records. I haven't seen it so far but the company website mentions that the CD comes with specifically written sleevenotes. These may well offer more details about Martha Bass's Checker recordings, so check there.

(2) You can listen to a 2009 telephone interview with Gene Barge, coming from the pages of Chicago's Vocalo89.5 network:

Click here for a direct link to the interview page.