Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pump Up the Beat!

mid-week gospel

It is a truism, easily substantiated by numerous examples but beyond the need of proof, that gospel strongly influenced r&b, then soul. In that process, also many spiritual tunes were turned into »secular« songs and eventually lost every connection to their origin. It happened much more rarely, at least in the '60s, that the conversion went the other way round. One such instance is the Swanees's 1966 release on Federal #  12542.

The Swanee Quintet (whose members debuted on this blog some two weeks ago) were a staple of Nashboro records into the mid-1960s when they had lost, after 15 years with the label, much of their former appeal. However, they had a special fan in James Brown who knew the Quintet since his early days (actually from before he started his own career) in Augusta, Ga. Brown had once worked as a shoe shine boy outside the WGAC radio station in Augusta (where the Swanees had their afternoon radio programme). The shoe shine boy grew up listening to the Swanee Quintet and in his teenage years secularised the sound of Ruben Willingham and the Swanees ... (quoted from here). In 1966, therefore, JB once again became the producer, and the result was the Federal single # 12542. That the billing on the label doesn't say »Swa- nee Quintet« or the like but »Rev. Willingham and His Swanees« might preannounce the solo career of Ruben Willingham which started soon after.

The Swanees '66 single features a »gospelized« version of JB's former hit »Try Me« and kind of a rock-gospel sermon by Willingham underlaid with a heavy beat and possibly with the participation of the brass section of the JB Band, based on JB's »Ain't That A Groove«. »Try Me Father« is often referred to merely as a gospel version of Brown's 1958 hit »Try Me« which is a pretty unfair description. Over a sterling arrangement, Johnny Jones rarely swoops into his more customary falsetto (in my opinion, there are a lot of places in the song where it almost sounds like Wilson Pickett is leading the song) but instead captures the intensity of the lyrics. ... this is not just a doo-wop-styled ballad, but rather a serious soul meditation which ... is one of the strongest records they released during their prime (quoted from here). »Try Me Father« is an obvious variation on James Brown’s classic 1958 proto-soul »Try Me« ... But turnaround is fair play, because The Godfather of Soul ... owed much of his early stage histrionics from the sound and style of gospel music performance. ... A typical Swanee track it’s not; »Try Me Father« is much better: a quintessential case of gospel borrowing from soul borrowing from gospel (quoted from here).

And certainly, typical church tunes they're not; but wonderful examples of crossover, albeit in the more unusual direction. Quite ahead of their times, really. Listen here:

Rev. Willingham and His Swanees: »That's The Spirit« / »Try Me Father« on Federal # 12542 (1966):

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday's Twosome # 18

Today with just a little song in between ... from James & Bobby Purify's self-titled debut album (released in 02/1967).
The LP was recorded in Muscle Shoals (with the known session musicians there) and released in February 1967. In many ways it is one of those classical '60s follow-up LPs trying to further exploit the success of one preceding 45' (Bell # 648, »I'm Your Puppet«). It is flawlessly produced and exceptionally well recorded. What it is lacking, however, is a spark of creativity, a flame of life. Apart from four songs already released as 45's, the album contains a bunch of proven standards (»Knock On Wood«, »You Left The Water Running«, »A Change Is Gonna Come«, »I've Been Loving You Too Long«) including a Motown tune (»Hitch Hike«), but they are all close sound-alikes to the originals and the Purifys are unable, to my mind, to add to those songs the neces- sary something to make their cover versions stand out in their own right. No big suprise, therefore, that the LP didn't fulfill whatever expectations were placed in it even though Bell proudly reported a sales figure of 30,000 in April (see Billboard, April 8, 67, p. 10). After that, nothing more is heard of this album.

This said, there is one nice tune that has the Purifys dueting a bit differently from their usual style, i.e. more in a counterpoint fashion (at least in some portions of the song) and less tending towards close harmony or merging their voices into one. The song had already been released, in January '67, on their second Bell 45' and then re-appeared on their first album. Here it is:

James & Bobby Purify: »Wish You Didn't Have To Go« from the Bell LP # 6003 (1967):

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Monday, February 25, 2013

80 yrs. ... and, well, some days

Last Thursday, actually Nina Simone's 80th birthday, I tossed about in my sweaty bed, driven from one edge of the frame to the other by feverish dreams, when damp showers and drizzling snow finally had knocked my immune defenses down (There more so as I just had returned from a 6-days trip to Rome). Friday seemed better, but the weekend had me down again. Now, over those last days I had ample occa-
sion to meditate whether it would still make sense to post something in honor of Nina Simone ... and this in turn led me to think about the value of anni- versaries in general. My conclusion was that Nina really doesn't need any special remembrance. As she is present in the hearts and minds of so many, one day is as good as any other. So today be it.
I don't remember where I read that somebody characterized Nina Simone as »undefinable«. It sounds like a non-description, as something said for want of better terms, but if you think about it for a second or two it might just turn out to be the greatest compliment any artist could ever hope to receive. (For my part, I tried to come up, before my inner eye, with artists I wouldn't know how to define for their sheer breadth of achievement and talent, and I couldn't come up with more than a handful.)

(Click to enlarge)
What would do justice to Nina in a special (if belated) anniversary post? First, recalling to mind, once again, her most troubling and indeed thoroughly haunting LP cover, viz. that of her last RCA album released in 1974 (but recorded in '73). And it's not the title (It Is Finished), for all its sinister undertone, that I find most disturbing. It is rather the way she poses and stares right in your eyes: innocent yet menacing, stubborn yet weak, resigned yet provocative, gloomy yet radiant with inner strength, human yet strangely outworldly, in a colorful summer garb with a bright straw hat yet sitting among dried-out and dis- carded coconut shells as if before a heap of skulls. I don't know why but the whole composition strikes me as Van-Goghesque for the importance it gives to color over matter and for the fact of how the simplicity of shapes and expression lays bare the underlying complexity of sentiment and life.
Second, the LP that comes under this cover is a string of masterpieces from the beginning to the end. But there is one song in particular which translates the visual art of the cover shot into a magical sound experience. The song is called Dambala (after a Voodoo deity; the song was written and first performed by Bahamas-born musician Exuma in 1970). I personally feel that this song comes nearest to summing up Nina's being (if that were ever possible). And it shows her, by the way, as the great great pianist she was. And a lot things more. Thanks for everything, Nina!

Nina Simone: »Dambala« from the RCA LP It Is Finished (1974):

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sewanee Pronounced Swanee ...

... which explains a lot (at least if you look at the label scans below).

Whatever the orthography!
The Swanee Quintet, with two songs recorded on June 2, 1958, and released that very year on Nashboro # 630.
Happy Sunday all!

The Swanee Quintet: »Where He Leads Me« / »Over in Zion« on Nashboro # 630 (1958):

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

All is Gold That Glitters, Part 2

... continued from here.

Colpix LP # 407 (1959)
For all we know, Nina's first Colpix album (The Amazing Nina Simone) was released in August 1959 (see also the Nina Simone Database). Considering the fact that the songs were only recorded in mid-July '59 in NYC the LP was really rushed out; the first review of the LP appeared already in the July 20, 1959, issue of Billboard. It might be of interest to report here what it says:
Here is a splendid new artist on her disk debut [a typical Billboard blunder since Nina's first LP was actually Bethlehem BCP # 6028, rel. towards the end of 1958!]. Miss Simone already identified with the jazz field, can sell strongly in pop too with these offerings. Her style has touches of many artists - Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Della Reese, even Marian Anderson, who was an influence on Miss Simone in her earlier days. The gal has a fine spiritual-gospel quality and is strongly oriented to folk- blues traditions. Program consists of a few standards, jazz stylings and gospel type numbers. An impressive artist well worth hearing. (p. 23).
Several issues later, Billboard felt compelled to provide some basic information about Nina Simone, under the heading »Thrush Nina Simone Was Piano Teacher« (Aug. 17, 1959, p.20). In October, we find a little notice clarifying Nina's label affiliation (Oct. 5, '59, p. 23) because many, it seems, were in doubt whether she recorded for Bethlehem or Colpix (actually she was with Colpix since April '59), and in the next issue Nina's name was listed - among Frank Sinatra, The Shirelles and Ernest Tubb! - as Today's Top Talent (Oct. 12, '59, p. 9).

Nina Simone, promo photo believed to be taken in 1960.
ad from EBONY, May 1960
By December 1959, Nina had further gained in notoriety. First press items appeared which spoke about Nina's temper during her live per- formances, e.g. the piece in JET (December 3, 1959, p. 44):
The way those San Francisco fans don't love Nina Simone the way they "love" Porgy. During a performance before a huge audience, Nina was booed, heckled and hissed by fans who claimed she talked too much, was indifferent and temperamental. Half of them walked out not wanting "to stay" there any longer, much less "forever.
However, she really made it, publicity-wise, when EBONY published a large article about her (including numerous photos), »Nina Loves Porgy«, in December 1959. Here again reference is made, right in the first lines, to Nina's »moods« but the author also finds something to recommend about her temper:
No female singer since the electric emer- gence of Sarah Vaughan 13 years ago has provoked such a bewildering variety of reactions and opinions as has this wiry, moody girl from Tyron, North Carolina. By creating acute controversy over her merits as a musician, she has injected a stimulat- ing and refreshing new force into the troubled, strife-torn and often murky waters of American jazz. When she sings she either disturbs or delights her hearers. Seemingly indifferent to the furore she has created ...
And voices who found much to praise in Nina's art were not lacking either. In the January 7, 1960, JET issue, the Chicago jazz critic Sidney Lazard is quoted with the words:
Her every song is like the revelation of a beautiful, exciting secret. And those who listen fill up with an undisguised happiness, tempered only by the knowledge that it will all end too soon (p. 24).
(Sidney Lazard was then to write, for the March 1960 issue of the ROGUE magazine, a piece entitled »Nina Simone, Tempestuous Talent«, but I haven't read or seen it yet.)

To return to Nina's first Colpix album! Nadine Cohodas in her biography of Nina Simone, Princess Noire, stresses correctly that the Colpix sessions of July 1959 (resulting in the first LP) were completely different from what (and how) she recorded at Bethlehem: While the Bethlehem sessions were »intimate« (three musicians in a small studio), the Colpix sessions were managed by Hecky Krasnow of »Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer«-fame and Nina »was part of a larger mosaic assembled by others, from song selection to arrangement. ... Krasnow had picked an eclectic mix of songs, ... and [the arranger Bob] Mersey surrounded Nina with violins, muted trumpets, and flutes, a prescripion Colpix hoped would bring crossover sales in the pop market (p. 83).« This, in the case of many other artists, would have proved a recipe for musical disaster, but it did not in the case of Nina Simone. Her presence and musicality saved the day and notwithstanding the lush production Colpix put up around Nina, the results were great. And for once I really agree with what we read on the back cover of her first Colpix LP; in general, those notes are so plainly smooth-written and honey-drafted to lure even the most critical customer in buying the most inaudible crap, but this does not apply in this case:
Nina is ... whatever the words and music she is singing really mean. Nina is a musical experience - an emotional trauma - an intellectual challenge ... Nina is a cauldron into which have been poured all the streams of musical expression and consciousness that shape American musical thought and emotion; classical, jazz, folk, ballad and Negro Church music ... When Nina plays and when Nina sings - the cauldron boils and the audience bubbles over ... Everything Nina does is new and different - how do you prove it - with standard material, all new material or stuff pulled down out of orbit? ... This album is just as good as your ear. Everything than can be said in the musical idiom within the boundaries of the twelve numbers ... is here said ...
This about sums it up nicely, I think.

From EBONY, Dec 1959, p 169.
For the record, and for the sake of complete- ness, Mrs Cohodas in Princess Noire got some different information as to the release dates. On p. 91 especially, she states that Nina's Colpix 45'' # 135 was put out in January 1960 and goes on to say that the »record was a teaser for the anticipated release of two full-scale albums, The Amazing Nina Simone ... and Nina Simone at Town Hall«. In fact, three singles were taken from Nina's first Colpix LP (one of those, Colpix # 135, actually also features »The Other Woman« not on the LP), but they were all released in 1959, # 135 in particular in November '59. The LP was already on the market by then for three months. Cohodas then claims that »before Colpix could get the LPs in circulation«, Bethlehem issued another album entitled Nina Simone and Her Friends. As is known, this Bethlehem LP irritated Nina mightily (to put it mildly) because her contract with Bethlehem/King had expired and she had signed for one album only (namely her 1958 Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club aka Little Girl Blue). In her autobiography, Nina said that »[m]y first album for Colpix was The Amazing Nina Simone, but before it even came out Bethlehem had released a rival, Nina Simone and Her Friends, which contained the few remaining songs that we had decided not to use on Little Girl Blue« (I Put A Spell On You, p. 65). Now this is consonant with what Nadine Cohodas claims, but the Bethlehem LP referred to (BCP # 6041) was not out before January 1960 (or maybe even February), i.e. at a time when the first two Colpix LPs were already circulating for months. I can't resolve this, obviously, but I still believe that the Colpix LPs were released before Bethlehem came out with their second (abusive) LP in early 1960.

Enough of this, let's listen to Nina Simone instead! Her first tune on her first Colpix LP, recorded in mid-July 1959 ...

Nina Simone: »Blue Prelude« from the Colpix LP # 407 (1959):

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Tuesday's Twosome # 17

... tonight with Margie Evans and Delmar Evans (I put the second name twice because they're not related, really, except musicallywise).

They were simply billed as »Delmar and Margie« on Johnny Otis's 1970 Epic LP Cuttin' Up and they feature on Side 2 with two remarkable duets, one funky and close to the pulse of the beginning '70s, the other a remake of a tune from 1950. And guess what? They outdid themselves with the one and the other. Maybe this was the secret of Johnny Otis, arguably the most important single r&b producer and impresario of all times, that he was able to reassemble his »Johnny Otis Show« in the late '60s (with new personnel) and still hit the nerve of the time after he had been around on the r&b scene since the mid-'40s. No little achievement, indeed.
     The first important result of his new Show was the Epic LP which came out in August 1970, just after the Johnny Otis Show had played the Monterey Jazz Festival. Delmar Evans and Margie Evans had been picked up by Otis to be part of his ensemble two years before, and while both can be heard as solo vocalists on various recordings (for Delmar, see also here), the Cuttin' Up LP has the two also duetting. Just some word on Margie Evans: She was born Marjorie Ann Johnson in 1940 and was basically discovered by Otis, as it were. She started singing backing vocals in the late '50s, but was then brought out as a solo voice by Otis; she then recorded from the 1970s through the 1990s and became mainly known among blues aficionados.

The two duets by Margie and Delmar are killer tunes. As said before, one is on the funky side, the other (»Double Crossing Blues«) classic r&b in a modern (and highly satisfying) garb. But both are equally compelling. Let's get to it!

Delmar and Margie: »Don't Stretch This Good Thing Too Far« /»Double Crossing Blues«
from the Epic LP # 26524 (1970):

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You may also listen to the original version of »Double Crossing Blues«, first released in 1950 (feat. the Johnny Otis Quintette with The Robins and Little Esther [Phillips] on Savoy # 731):

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Squeaky Diane ... haunts London

... with best wishes to Miss P. in London

On the day 45 years ago, The Supremes Live at the Talk of the Town was aired tonight on British TV. The post-Flo Supremes had opened in London's Talk of the Town on January 22, 1968. It was part of a tour through Europe (not their first) which took them to Cannes, Paris, Milan, Hamburg, Amster- dam, Stockholm and, well, London. After their 22 January concert, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (not in the photo) were immortalized by a press photographer when Paul McCartney showed up and said hi (... and fittingly the #1 pop song in January 1968 was the Beatles's »Hello Goodbye«!); you can find a larger version of this pic in the February 10 issue of Billboard.

Now, let's pause for a moment and think what was going on in the heads of the persons on the photo. The Supremes had, just before they departed for Europe, stayed in sunny Mexico to deliver their pathetic contribution to an episode of Ron Ely's Tarzan. The episode in question was called The Convert and was aired in the US on January 12, 1968; you can watch it on YouTube. In that episode, the Supremes appear as three nuns and merrily chant a few churchy tunes, e.g. »Michael Row The Boat Ashore«; their boat capsizes because their singing irritates a touchy hippo (can't blame it) and all three are getting a jungle bath before being valiantly rescued by Tarzan. They then act their lordly way through the dire episode to conclude it with shouts of Hallelujah and a lot of hand-clapping.
     Motown's admittedly clever publicity idea to insert the Supremes, whose record sales were slacking in late 1967, in a noted TV series was deemed interesting enough to warrant a  fully-fledged coverage of their »Swinging Dramatic TV Acting Debut« in JET (issue of January 18, 1968, p. 60 ff.). The JET piece came with a centerfold pic of the Supremes »cooling off ... after a hot day's work in the jungle« (see it here), and there were also a number of pics showing the nuns from Detroit at work ...

(From JET, January 18, 1968, issue, p. 60)
The unlikely nuns then exchanged their modest attire for sequined dresses, flashy elbow gloves and tippy heels, boarded a plane and eventually run into Paul McCartney, or vice versa. What mood was he in? Well, right on 22 January, the new Apple office had opened in London, ushering in the last phase of the Beatles epic. Spiritually, he may have been preparing for his imminent trip to India where he was to study Transcendental Meditation (from mid-February onwards); eventually, he became bored and returned home, although he later claimed that TM »has helped him personally« (see quote here). Before he boarded his plane, he had taken part in shooting a small part for the Yellow Submarine movie and also recorded »Lady Madonna«.

Motown LP # MS 676 (08/1968)
The Supremes meeting Paul McCartney were thus a truly bizarre match. Let's hope that Paul, who reportedly attended the Talk of the Town concert of the Supremes before meeting them afterwards, was too distracted by the Apple launch and the India follies of his buddies to listen closely to what the Detroit ladies were offering on stage. However, Berry Gordy saw to it that the public was, in August 1968, endowed with a live LP which brought the musical enrichment of the British Isles as enacted by the Supremes into the home of unfortunate record buyers. In any case, the LP is one of the best live recordings to come out of Motown, although the measuring standards are poor. Diana and the Supremes did what they could best: trying to make forget the public by their lively appearance that vocal art was an alien concept to their lead singer. Unfortunately this strategy doesn't work on vinyl.

But London survived the Supremes, I guess. And there is still much talk of the town going on there, after all.

The Supremes, first medley from the Motown LP # MS 676 (1968):