Friday, February 27, 2009

Boss Tracks, Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music

Arthur Conley arguably was one of Soul's most tender stars. Arthur's star shone short but bright, immortalizing himself with the smash Sweet Soul Music. The genre's anthem, one of those songs everybody knows and knows how to shake their hips to. Few might know Conley sang the damn record, but everybody knows how to participate in its joy. You'll find few, if any, folks who do not like that particular song. The song might have been a blessing to the buying public, one might wonder if it was such a blessing to Arthur. Sweet Soul Music defined the path his career was going to take. After hitting big once Arthur was surrounded by people who wanted to see him repeat that success. It locked a few doors Arthur might have taken and ultimately was one of the reasons why his career stalled.

Arthur started out as Otis Redding protégé, cutting sides for his Jotis label. But pupil or not, Conley was clearly the better singer. His voice was clearer and had a much better range than Otis'. Anybody who's heard "Let Nothing Separate Us" on the Sweet Soul Music album will adhere to that. Arthur was a mighty fine Deep Soul singer, able to instil a fragility in his testimonies, an honesty in his ache that was quite rare in the macho world of Soul. Arthur was one of those artists that gained an enormous respect amongst his peers. This was reflected in his inclusion in the Soul Clan, the only Soul super group the sixties ever knew. The Soul clan consisted of Solomon Burke, Wilson Picket, Ben E. King and Joe Tex. In sales Conley was a light weight compared to those, in talent he was their equal. But with his career being pushed in the direction Sweet Soul Music had taken, this talent never fully materialized.

Conley was never cut for the music business , a sensitive Soul who just wasn't up to the harsh realities and strain the record biz brought. On top of that Arthur was a homosexual man in the masculine world of Soul, something he hid from his peers. After Otis, his rock of Gibraltar, died, Conley soon left the business. First living in Brussels and London, he finally found the love of his life in Amsterdam in 1981, a Dutch carpet weaver, who had no idea who Arthur Conley was, and miraculously had never heard Sweet Soul Music.

But before Conley said farewell to live and recording music for good he had something of a hidden comeback on the wrong side of the track in Amsterdam. In 1979 Conley lived in Amsterdam under the name of Lee Roberts. Conley formed a band under that name but was uncovered by drummer Dick Baars who happened across one of the band rehearsals. All though Conley refused to admit it at the time, Baars was sure it was Conley as he had just bought a record of his that same day. Here was the man on the cover!! Baars convinced Conley to join his band the Sweaters on the fact that he claimed to have a real Hammond b-3 organ and horns!

Robert Lee & the Sweaters would ultimately perform four evenings in the ghetto of Amsterdam at a small cultural centre. The first night drew few people, without exception all from the former Dutch colony Suriname, where Conley had been a big star. The second night some returned with album sleeves to make sure. Although Robert Lee denied to be Conley the word spread like wild fire. By the final night the tiny cultural centre had people standing outside the door. Somebody in the audience was so smart to record this show, resulting in a live release under the name of Robert Lee in '88. Arthur Conley simply didn't want to be associated with the name that brought him fame.

Although the sound is raggedy, Arthur Conley and the Sweaters is one of Soul's greatest live albums. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square club. The backing band is far from tight but pure and raw Soul. Arthur's voice hovers somewhere between the raucous vocals of Otis and the near perfection of Sam Cooke. As the evening progresses and Arthur gets deep into the great Soul hits (none of his own) you can feel the excitement and the tension building. The crowd is almost visible hanging on his lips, knowing they are witness to a private comeback of one of Soul's legends. Arthur came back full force that night in the intimacy of a few hundred people. A few more performances would follow before the curtain fell for good. But thanks to that one recording his final moment of glory is kept for eternity. The Album is now finally available for the international market for the first time. Live in Amsterdam is an essential album in my book. Dick Baars released it through his own label with a minimum of distribution. So it might be hard to find. Luckily Baars now runs a small record store, remember those, in Amsterdam. Stop by if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.

Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music

Available on Sweet Soul Music

Read more on Arthur over at Red Kelly's excellent "B" Side

Springsteen performed the song regularly during the Tunnel of Love Express tour

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Boss Tracks, Knock on Wood by Eddie Floyd (interview)

Recently I was lucky enough to score an interview with the great Eddie Floyd. As a major Soul fan interviewing Eddie Floyd is a big deal. Though when mentioning mister Floyd to friends I got a shocking amount of raised eye brows from people in their thirties, Floyd was at the cradle of what we see today as classic Soul music. Though his star never has been as big as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles or Otis Redding, you can argue that his influence comes close to matching those legendary performers. Even today, Knock on Wood and Raise Your Hand are standards any bar band worth its salt should know by heart. Even though not everybody remembers him as sharply, Eddie wrote and first popularized those tunes, they are a big part of our collective musical memory through later versions by the Blues Brothers, David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. So picking up the phone to talk to Eddie, I suddenly felt my palms go sweaty and my hands shaking. I was nervous, I was going to talk to a hero of mine.

Eddie Floyd’s story is particularly interesting to tell, not just because he wrote some of those big hits, but because he was there from the beginning. Even though his recent performance on BBC’s Jools Holland shows a vital man seemingly in the prime of his life, make no mistake, Eddie is 71 years old, he’s been around long enough to tell us a story or two.

Floyd’s story seems to revolve around music, he lives and breathes it. Over the course of the interview his answers on the business or political side of things would be short, to Eddie they seem to be secondary to the process of making music. When I’d ask mister Floyd about that process his voice seemed to warm up through the crackling phone line, the chuckles and his voice would break in enthusiasm. His taste for music was spoon fed. “My momma would take me out to see everybody that had a record out,” mister Floyd remembers, “Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, I saw them when I was just a little kid and I sung all that!” His early musical influences didn’t stop at Jazz, “there was Country and Western as well, I hadn’t heard of Muddy Waters at the time, but Hank Williams was a local I guess. Franky Lymon and the teenagers was the first group I saw that I knew I wanted to be in a group.” Eddie picks Hank Ballard and the Midnighters as one of the biggest influences on the Falcons at the time, “we loved Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, they were the rough and tough sounding group!” Eddie Floyd incidentally is one of the many artists who mentions the Midnighters as an influence, a list that goes all the way up to James Brown. “They did the Twist,” Eddie adds exited, “everybody is giving it to Chubby Checker, but the Hank Ballard was the Twist ya’ll!!”

By 1956, when Franky Lymon hit big with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Floyd had already formed his first incarnation of the Falcons. Eddie had moved from his native Montgomery Alabama to Detroit with his uncle Robert West. Ahead of his time the first Falcons were an integrated group, half the group, Bob Monardo and Tom Shelter, was white at the time. “The original Falcons only lasted long enough to take a photo,” Eddie laughs today, “no recording was ever made because Bob and Tom were drafted.” From there on the group would quickly take on the shape that would make the Falcons legendary later. Sir Mack Rice and Joe Stubbs (brother to recently deceased Levi Stubbs from Four Tops fame) were added to the group. With the hit single “You’re so Fine” shooting up the Billboard charts in 1959, landing a whopping #17 in the pop charts, the Falcons were flying. Joe Stubbs soon left for the Contours, who were signed with Motown, and was replaced by the exiting Wilson Picket. The sound of the Falcons had begun to shift Floyd recalls today, “we saw a shift from the Detroit sound to the Memphis sound,” something Floyd credits sir Mac Rice for.

With Picket on board, the Falcons would score their last big R&B hit, 1962’s “I Found a Love” with the Wicked Picket on the scorching and wailing lead vocals. Though the song saw little action on the pop charts, peaking at #75, today it is considered as one of those tracks that is the watershed between R&B and Soul. Picket’s ambitions however would prevent the group from cashing in on the success of the single, soon after “I Found a Love” hit, Wilson went solo. Today mister Floyd looks back on the Flacons as the place where he could hone his skills, “the Falcons paid off eventually when we all could go solo,” he explains. It wouldn’t take long for Eddie Floyd to test his skills. Soon after the Falcons fell apart, he struck up acquaintance with future Stax president All Bell, who was a DJ in Washington at the time. “At the time I met All, [Stax recording artist] Carla Thomas was going to university in Washington. Al and I got together and wrote a few songs for her.” Those songs were the deep soul classic “Stop! Look What You’re Doing To Me” and “Comfort Me.” Those compositions would give Floyd a foot in the door at Sax when All Bell was landed at Stax in a promotion position. “I more or less just came along,” he laughs at it today.

At first Floyd would be hired at Stax as a songwriter, coming in every month or so for some writing sessions. He fondly remembers those early Stax days, “everybody was having a ball, creating new songs daily.” Explaining further “most of those hit songs were accidents. We’d just go with the flow, we’d write a song but didn’t have tape recorders yet to put the idea down and go back to it.” As a result the recording process would often be a team effort, a more natural process. Stax studios at the time was equipped with a simple 4 track recorder, “we had to just pray it came together that particular instant.” The songs were often created on the spot, Floyd remembers, “everybody put a little bit in those songs, there was a great sense of togetherness.” Everybody would bring their own thing to the floor Floyd explains, “Steve Cropper would create all the Rhythm, he was great on playing those intros, when you hear his lick, you know what song it is. Booker T was great at absolutely everything” he recounts with still that sense of marvel in his voice.

Some of the biggest hits Floyd did for Stax were accidents, with a laugh Floyd entrusts how Knock on Wood is still a demo today. “When we’d go into the studio to record a demo, we’d play it together at that moment. No matter what the song was, it’s finished by the time you listen at it. Recording is much more technical today,” Floyd reflects. The songs signature lyrics came to Floyd when he was writing with Steve Cropper in the very Motel where Martin Luther King would be assassinated a few years down the line, a moment that would change Stax forever. Floyd and Cropper had hit writers block when a thunder storm hit, “It’s like thunder, lightings, the way you love me is frightening,” Floyd sings in the phone, still amused at how it all still clicked at that very moment. The song fleshed out further when “Al Jackson threw in that drum fill on the studio floor. It sounded funny at the time, we were enjoying what we were hearing, so it must have been right,” he laughs.

Springsteen’s signature encore song, Raise Your Hand, was written in much the same way during those sessions. In Floyd’s mind however, “We didn’t finish it, but when we came to London [for the Stax-Volt Tour] we heard both songs on the radio.” Mister Floyd is still thankful to Springsteen and others who helped his songs further along and collects all different versions today. “There’s so many artists that have done my songs. Eric Clapton is my favorite one [doing Knock on Wood],” adding with some amusement, “there was even one that was Disco, believe me, I wasn’t even thinking Disco!”

April 29th 1976 The E-Street Band featuring Eddie Floyd

MP3 File

During the Born to Run tour Springsteen introduced himself to Floyd when the tour hit Memphis. “Him and Southside Johnny were just regular guys I hadn’t met before and I basically hadn’t heard of him back then. When [Springsteen] called there were people in the studio who did realize who was calling, I just said,” chuckling “do you know him? One of the cats was actually a big fan and went down with me, I guess he’ll never forget that, he was still talking about it years later!” Floyd was pleasantly surprised by the Boss. “I play a lot of your songs Springsteen said. The ones were Knock on Wood and Raise Your Hand, plus two or three others I had never played before live.” Floyd still laughs at Springsteen’s reaction when he exclaimed, “You don’t do those songs!” Floyd had shrugged and admitted, “No, I just play the hits.” Later that night, Floyd joined the young upcoming star on stage to play a few of those.

The memories of Stax are fond and many, Floyd jumps through them throughout the interview. He still seems in awe about hitting Europe and being on the same stage as Sam and Dave or his good friend Otis Redding, “I was working with so many heavies, I mean being on the same stage, WOW!!” he exclaims, “We didn’t expect to be so big, we just went to play music,” he adds humbly. A few years after the Stax-Volt had hit Europe, Floyd was back in London when tragedy struck, Otis passed. Floyd had to hear the news from a reporter. The plane Floyd tried to take home to attend the funeral couldn’t take off because it mall functioned. Floyd´s homage to Redding was born out of that experience when he mumbled “get on up Big Bird” under his breath out of frustration.

Soon after that Martin Luther King passed as well, an event that changed the face of Black music. All Bell, who had introduced Floyd at Stax, would go on to transform the company, as vice-president, to a mixture between a record label and a socially conscious movement, working closely together with various civil rights movements and releasing increasingly assertive music. Though Floyd admits, “it was great to be part of the times, it changed overnight everywhere, it didn’t stop [with King’s passing], we had to move on,” Floyd’s interest isn’t really in politics. His main motivation is Soul music and how that brings people together. “Soul music gotta be in there somewhere, it’s the main ingredient, it is the people putting it all together,” he elaborates, “Everybody’s got to be on that same number.” That is what politics and brotherhood seems to be to Floyd, regardless of race, creed or colour, Soul music unifies.

In recent years, Floyd is enjoying a something of a renaissance in his career. The Soul sound he helped create is everywhere again in the sound of new and upcoming talents such as Amy Winehouse, Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and Duffy. Floyd himself is still finding new avenues for his Soul sound, working with Latin legend Poncho Sanchez, amongst others. “Poncho told me he used to do Raise Your Hand as a kid in school. The funny thing is Steve [Cropper] originally had a little Spanish type feeling to the beginning of the song that you don’t here on the record no more, but it was on the original one, so we always felt that it had a Spanish flavour to it. So now Poncho comes up, many, many years later, playing it how we used to do it.” So Floyd decided to re-cut the song with Poncho with the help of his old buddies Steve Cropper and Booker T Jones. “We sung it live!” Floyd proudly relates, “all my songs have always been one or two cuts, not ten or fifteen!”

These days Floyd is a semi-regular with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings live band, but he still cuts records on his own. His most recent, Eddie Loves You So, revisits that classic Stax sounds and found its release on the recently rejuvenated label. Floyd’s voice sounds surprisingly young and hungry for a man in his seventies. “A band from Boston put the backing tracks together,” Floyd relates, “They did a great job sounding just like those Stax records. That’s just my state of mind, my mind is still there in ’67.” The recording process was swiftly Floyd admits, “I sang them out, bang, bang, bang! They had me scheduled for two days, I was probably up there for two hours,” he laughs, “I wouldn’t know how to sing them any other way than I did. It just fell into place, kind of amazing really, at least the MGs would hear me sing them, but these guys didn’t, but they just kind of locked in and kept it together. I was able to sing everything and feel comfortable.” What helped the process of course was how producer Mike Dinallo went back through Floyd’s song book, spot lighting some rarities to re-record. “Since You’ve Been Gone was a song he didn’t think I’d remember.” Floyd elaborates, “It was one of the first songs I did with the Falcons, I hadn’t heard it since. Mike send me a tape, I heard it once and it just kind of locked in my head, they all came back.” Eddie Loves You So came out as a great album, a Soul legend going full cycle.

Since You've Been Gone

Find out more on the Falcons here
A big thanks to In the Basement Magazine for help on getting this together.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Boss Tracks; California Sun by the Rivieras

In this blog I strive to go for the original recordings of a song. On this occasion I felt it was warranted to go with the second recorded version. It was the Rivieras proto-Garage version that made this Henry Glover song into a hit after all. Joe Jones' original take on the song had barely dented the charts. The Rivieras' version however made it all the way up till the number two spot on the Billboard charts in 1964. Held back only by those pesky Beatles, who had just started to take the nation by storm with their first American release "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The Rivieras recording session pre-dated that Beatles release. In that sense it the Rivieras' success proves that self-contained bands were already scurrying in their garages before America noticed those British mods. Contradicting popular believe that the Beatles were at the root of the tidal wave of self contained American R&R groups. Though they no doubt enforced that development in R&R, it seems to me that it was more a parallel movement than is acknowledged in popular culture today. The Rivieras would soon disappear in obscurity however. Their musical chops were far to raggedy to produce a successful follow-up, plus the draft soon got about half of the band. It was the Rivieras version however that would lead to the song's most famous incarnation by the Ramones over a decade later when the world became sick and tired of the pompous album rock the Beatles had help create. The Riviera's California Sun would prove to be the kick start of the Surf craze, not bad for a band from Indiana.

Still their fate was better than Joe Jones, who originally tried his hands on the song for Roulette. Label owner Morris Levy had convinced Henry Glover to come over to his label to set up the R&B department. While proficient in the Jazz market, Roulette still had to crack that far more lucrative market. That Joe Jones even came to record the song was something of an odd twist of events. Jones' run with the label had failed to produce any hits. Under the impression Roulette had forgotten about him, he cut You Talk To Much for the New Orleans based Ric label. The song had been written by Fats Domino's brother in law Reggie Hall, but rejected by the Fat Man because he felt the song had no potential. When New York radio stations started picking up Joe Jones' version on Ric, it appeared Fats' instincts had failed him. Roulette soon remember they had signed Jones and filed an injunction against Ric, re-releasing the song on Roulette, scoring a major national hit. So it was in pursuit of a follow-up that New Orleans based piano player Joe Jones came to record California Sun, half a continent away from the songs subject matter. As mentioned, without the hoped for success.

Henry Glover's career however had been much more successful. As it often goes with producers, their significance to the history of R&R tends to get obscured by the performing artists. Many of them who wouldn't have been as successful without their producers in the first place. Glover was one of the first black record-executives the industry had ever seen. A status he acquired on the basis of being able to write hits across the board. Springsteen fans may be familiar with Glover's Seven Nights to Rock, Henry wrote for hillbilly piano player Moon Mullican over at Syd Nathan's King studios in Cincinnati. Just as easily Glover produced hits for the immensely popular and influential Hank Ballard & the Midnighters (the band that started the original Twist craze). Similarly Glover was at the cradle of many careers. Glover produced James Brown's early hits, guided Little Willie John's career and convinced the Hawks to pursue a career of their own, away from Ronnie Hawkings shadow, a move that led to the Band, Bob Dylan's most famous backing group and another source of inspiration for the Boss, who covered their Rag Mama Rag during the Seeger Sessions tour. But that's a story for another day. Meanwhile enjoy a little sunshine on the edge of winter with the Rivieras.

The Rivieras

Available on Time Life Rock 'n' Roll Era Street Corner Serenade II

Joe Jones

You Heard It Here First! (Original Versions of Famous Songs) (highly recommended)

Sprinsgteen played a snippet California Sun in Light of Day during his infamous October 23rd 1999 Reunion tour show in L.A. and again on November 9th 2007 at a benifit show for Joe Torre's Safe at Home Foundation. See a video here thanks to Pam from BTX.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Boss Tracks; Many Rivers to Cross, Jimmy Cliff

Rolling Stone placed Many Rivers to Cross on the 317 spot of their top 500 essential songs, calling it a "hymn about struggle and perseverance." As a song it works on many levels. It is a song about personal everyday struggle first. The lyrics search for that strength and wisdom to overcome the obstacles that everyday life brings us. Wether it is a lost love or a lost job, Many Rivers to Cross seems to be the perfect soundtrack to adversity. On another level, the song has often been perceived as a civil rights anthem. The lyrics to Many Rivers to Cross have a pro-active feel to it. The protagonist to the song is looking to find his land of milk and honey in his life time, he refuses to wait on the here after. The level on which it found most meaning to me recently, is found between the lines. It is the level of that last river to cross, that journey from life into eternal rest. It feels to me like a song that can give one the strength to deal with those final moments, or a song to comfort those left behind. That Many Rivers to Cross works on so many profound levels is probably the reason why it became such a timeless masterpiece. An impressive string of artists have tried their hands on it, ranging from Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox, from The Animals to the Soweto Gospel Choir, or Lenny Kravitz to the Blind Boys of Alabama. Each version stressing yet another level of the song. Springsteen performed the song regularly during the later legs of his Lucky Touch tour, staying close to the Gospel feel of the song. I feel his performance of the song is as powerful as anything he's done in his own catelog, in theme and feel close to the Promised Land. Songs simply do not get much better than this.

Jimmy Cliff, who wrote and originally performed the song was one of Reggae's first stars. Many Rivers to Cross first became a hit from his debut album, later once again on the sound track for the excellent The Harder They Come film. That movie, starring Cliff as a struggling singer and drugs dealer, was the Jamaican version of the Blaxploitation genre. A good argument can be made though that the film is better than any movie from America in that genre, save maybe for Shaft (he's a baaad mother....). Loosely based on the life of Ivanhoe 'Rhyging' Martin, considered Jamaica's original Rude Boy, the harder they come is a complex anti-esthablisment film. Though Cliff chooses a life outside the law in the film, often using brutal means to get what he is after, you tend to find symphaty for his dubious choices. The corruption of Jamaica and its highly stratified society simply make it seem like Cliff has little choice but to choose the life of a Rude Boy. In a sense, the movie is Jamaica's Johnny 99.

Jimmy Cliff's debut from 1969, Hard Road to Travel, still stands as one of Reggae's land marks. Produced by the immortal Leslie Kong, it featured a bold mix between protest songs, civil rights anthems and hymns. Though the album's second single, Vietnam, failed to chart, Bob Dylan called it the best protest song ever written at the time. On the strength of Hard Road, Chris Blackwell from Island records convinced Cliff to move to England and sign with his company. Unfortunately it would prove the descicion that would land his career in the shadow of Bob Marley. Sensing the latter's potential, Island focussed most of its energy on Marley, Cliff was poorly promoted as a result there off. What didn't help his career in the US was that, when the Harder They Come album was released around 1971, the movie wouldn't follow untill four years later. So Cliff remained something of a cult figure. Cliff's is however still out there on the road and held in high regard by his peers. In 1985 he was asked by van Zandt to feature on his Sun City, his 2002 album, Fantastic Plastic People, featured duets with Annie Lennox, Sting and Joe Strummer, coming back in 2004 with a reworked version of that album, Cliff added Wycleff Jean to the fold. Today, he remains one of those must see legends, if only because he wrote one of the most moving songs of all time.

Many Rivers to Cross, Jimmy Cliff

Many Rivers to Cross, Bruce Springsteen featuring Terrence Trent D'Arby

MP3 File

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Buddy Holly; The Day Music Was Reborn

February 3 1959 is also infamously known as the day that music died. That fatal day Buddy Holly flew to his death while on tour with the Winter Dance Party, a package that included Dion and the Bellmonts as well. It was the first time Buddy Holly had flown. With Holly, R&R also lost famous DJ the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in a bizar twist of events. Eventually it were Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings who were going to board that plane. Jennings gave up his spot to the Big Bopper when he came down with the flu, in exchange for a sleeping bag. Allsup accepted a bet from Richie Valens and lost his seat in a coin toss. Valens even joked how it was the first time he had ever won anything. Years down the line Don McLean would give that date the name it had since when he looked back in the lyrics of his 1971 monster hit, singing "I can't remembered if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride. But something touched me deep inside, the day that music died.

Don's lyric doesn't do a whole lot of credit to Buddy's legacy and the enduring appeal of R&R. True, with Elvis in the army, Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry entwined in sex scandals and Little Richard finding the Lord, R&R seemed to be hanging by a thread in 1959, but things were already bubbling. Holly had toured the UK during March 1958 and as legend goes had stirred the hearts and hips of a more than a few future key players. Future members of the Beatles and the Stones had seen Buddy Holly in concert, Eric Clapton would later acknowledge it was Holly, amongst others, who was the reason he took up the guitar. Robert Zimmerman, who had seen Holly at the January 31st 1959 show, would change his name in Bob Dylan soon after. Like most legends go, Buddy's rise to fame was almost the result of a few happy accidents. Presenting a demo of That'll Be the Day to manager Norman Petty, the Clovis born took it upon himself to sell the recording to Coral records as the finest deal. A star was born by taking a few lines from the Searchers, a John Wayne movie, and turning it into song. While Holly wasn't nearly as dangerous as Elvis, an argument can be made that it was him and his Crickets who became the blue print for future R&R bands. His Fender-Stratocaster sound was sharp and vicious (especially for those days), Holly wrote and sang his own songs and had a self contained band. Buddy's unique lo-fi sound made R&R accessible for a whole generation of teenagers aching to bust out their guitars themselves. I suspect that Buddy Holly caused more than a few teenage boys to lock themselves up in their garages, preparing R&R's second coming. February 3rd 1959 may have been the day that Buddy Holly died, but he had already helped to give birth to a new generation. As they say, R&R is dead, long live R&R! And God bless Buddy Holly.

Not Fade Away, Buddy Holly

Available on Buddy Holly Gold

I did two earlier posts for Boss Tracks on Buddy, Rave On and Oh Boy! I've restored the audio for both. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I Do Believe It's Superbowl Time

Despite all the reservations fans had about selling out I thought we just witnessed the hard rocking, pants dropping, booty quacking, Viagra tacking, history making, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in all their glory. Springsteen promised us the final 12 minutes of the show and we got it in spades. This is probably the finest form we've seen the E-Street Band on television since that MTV Awards in 2002. It may have been awfully short for a man who is accustomed to bring us three hour shows, but he packed everything an E-Street show should have in to it. Posing with the Big Man, jumping on the piano, knee slides, howling with Steve and where the hell did that gigantic choir pop up from. Reservation about the new material aside, I though Working on a Dream worked great in its slot. And those horns..... we GOTTA have those horns on tour. By the time Steve called quitting time this fan boy was shouting; "SAY IT AIN"T SO!!!," behind his laptop.

Fortunately the Superbowl was on YouTube faster than I could return from the fridge with an ice cold beer so we can watch it over and over and over again.

Watch part 2 here.
From the NLF page, here's the press conference, so you can watch it again and judge for yourself if the Boss kept his word.
Visit Backstreets as more news and reviews will undoubtly trickle in, or to enjoy Killmo's excellent Superbowl Blog.
Find a great slide show of Reuters photos here.
On there's an outstanding review for us to drool over.
Over at BTX evman was so cracious to post the audio for download.
MTV explains what's up with "I'm going to Disney Land!"
Find the silloutte for your desk top here.
The NY Times has posted a lengthy review for your enjoyment.
Photos from the Tampa Bay Tribune are also online.
A nice collection of reviews can also be found on the Freedom Eden blog.
Here's another topic of interest over at BTX for those who forgot to set the VCR.

Boss Tracks; Let The Four Winds Blow, Fats Domino

Fats Domino is without a doubt one of the pillars of R&R. The amount of hits the Fat Man scored in his hey day is uncanny. For a while there it seemed that Fats had the Midas Touch. Yet, for some reason, Let the Four Winds Blow proved to be one of his last smash hits in 1961. By that time Domino had released 55 singles, most of which charted, 21 of which double. Domino’s first charting single, doing better on the jukebox charts they still had back in the day, was the rollicking Fat Man, defining his image for the rest of his career and selling over a million copies in the process. Released in 1949, it is regarded as the first R&R single by many. Not without good cause, the record predated Rocket ’88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, sax-man for Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings, by a full 2 years. The latter often gets the edge over Fats’ single since it was recorded by Sam Phillips of Sun studio fame and then covered by Bill Haley and his Comets. It may be knit picking, but I’d rather put my money on the Fat Man.

Domino was a New Orleans native. His style would define the sound of that city as much as it would define the sound of R&R. His piano style isn’t totally unique though. The rolling rhythms are highly indebted to New Orleans legend professor Longhair. The professor’s unique combination of Rumba, Calypso and Mambo, not only gave birth to R&R but would evolve into what we know today as Funk. Though the professor scored just that one minor hit with the delightful and ridiculous Bald Head, his approach to the piano is an influence still heard in New Orleans today. Fats Domino, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint would all pay tribute to the man and will gladly admit they owe their careers to the foundations the professor laid down. I suspect Roy Bittan enjoys himself a side of Longhair from time to time as well.

Another figure Fats Domino owes quite a bit of his success to is the late and legendary Earle Palmer, probably the greatest R&R drummer that has ever lived. Palmer provided Domino with that infectious back beat that made his single, including Fat Man and Let the Four Winds Blow so irresistible. Palmer played on such an impressive number of genre defining R&R singles that it is easy to argue that the whole genre might have had a whole different feel to it if Palmer had decided to focus solely on Jazz, in which he was trained. When Palmer passed on September 19th last year, Garage radio DJ Dave the Spazz managed to fill a full three hour radio show with material Earle Palmer played on. Almost every tune featured on that show was a classic. Go check it out for yourself, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Richie Valens are just a few of the impressive names you’ll find, Dave the Spazz makes radio that causes Little Steven to froth at the mouth.

Fats Domino’s success kept the Fat Man busy and on the road. Too busy in fact to spend much time on recording sessions. Enter another legendary New Orleans figure, Allen Toussaint. At a mere 17 years he was asked to step to the plate and play the Fat Man’s parts for him whenever he was out doing his dates. Full backing tracks, including Toussaint on piano, would be send out to Fats, where ever he was at the time, all he had to do was provide them with the vocals. That’s how the hits were made. Taking is schooling with him, Toussaint would himself become one of those legendary figures in the New Orleans R&B scene. Over the course of his career, Toussaint released a mere 5 albums in the seventies that hardly made a dent at the time, but before that had already established himself as a reliable hit maker, producing sides for a wide arrange of people. Notable titles produced by Toussaint include Benny Spellman’s Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette and Fortune Teller, Irma Thomas’ Ruler of my Heart, or Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coalmine and Yes We Can. Does the latter sound familiar? I thought so. Inspired by Katrina Toussaint was recently rehabilitated by Elvis Costello when he recorded River in Reverse with the man and subsequently toured behind it with Toussaint.

Back to Fats, born Antoine in 1928, Domino’s ground breaking career almost didn’t happen. Domino earned his first chops playing the local nightclubs for pennies. He earned his actual living by working in a mattress factory. When a pile of bedsprings fell on Fats hands one day, the doctors told him he would never play again. It took Fats a mere two years to be back in the game, this time playing in the Hideaway Club as a regular. Dave Bartholomew, a local trumpet player with a record deal in the pocket, was impressed by the man already called Fats. So when Lew Chudd, owner of the Californian Imperial records asked Dave if he knew some talent he could sign, Dave hipped Lew to Fats by taking him to the club. Lew signed Fats on the spot, the rest they say is history. Throughout his stint with that Californian label Fats stayed loyal to his home of New Orleans as much as to the label. When Imperial records traded ownership however, Fats took the opportunity to switch employers and signed with ABC in the fall of 1962, the label that worked wonders for Ray Charles’ career. ABC however forced him to leave his native home and record in Nashville. Significantly the hits stopped coming soon after.

Fats Domino continued to be a New Orleans resident for the rest of his life. Domino felt so rooted in the city that he refused to evacuate when Katrina was approaching august 2005. His house stood in an area that was heavily flooded, many thought that Domino had perished in the storm, somebody even wrote R.I.P on the remains of his house. Like many Fats Domino lost everything he had in that hurricane. One of the few things president “bystander” Bush saw personally to was that Fats got an replacement for the medal Bill Clinton had given him a few years earlier. Domino managed to rebuilt his sober house soon enough and has since dedicated his time and efforts to the Tipitina Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to provide musical instruments to school and keep New Orleans’ rich musical history alive. The foundation fittingly lends its name from one of professor Longhair’s most well known songs. The Fat Man’s latest contribution are the proceeds of an album recorded by some of R&R greatest in his tribute. Springsteen was at one point rumoured to contribute, which unfortunately never materialized. The list of names that did is none the less impressive. How many albums feature the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Randy Newman, Elton John and Tom Petty all paying their dues. If we should ever question the width of the Fat Man’s influence.

Fats Domino

Available on Greatest Hits: Walking To New Orleans

Bruce Springsteen, Cambridge, 01-07-1974

MP3 File

Friday, January 30, 2009

This Train; This Land is Your Land

Usually I save this feature for songs written by Springsteen. Today we’re making an exception by looking at the history of this seminal piece of song writing. This Land is Your Land, in my mind, reflects America and its dream better than the official national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. It certainly has more eye for the harsh reality of the American dream than the song Woody Guthrie wrote it in response to, Irvine Berlin’s God Bless America. While Berlin had originally written the song in 1918, while serving in the U.S. army, it didn’t get a proper recording until 1938 when Kate Smith sang it on her radio show. The song soon became a hit. Round the time God Bless America hit the juke-boxes across the country, Woody Guthrie was roaming it like a hobo. During his travels Guthrie was confronted with the poverty and social injustices that gnaw at the American Dream. The rot in that apple was at the time amplified by one of the fiercest economic crisis the nation had ever known. The gap between the haves and have-nots seemed impossible to bridge. Guthrie felt God Bless America was too overtly patriotic to reflect the painful realities he was confronted with on the road.

Guthrie’s first attempt at writing a response to Berlin’s saccharine anthem came to him on February 23rd, 1940. According to Joe Klein’s excellent biography on Woody Guthrie, A Life, the song was originally titled God Blessed America. Woody supposedly took the tune from the Carter Family’s Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine, which the Carters in turn swiped from an old Baptist hymn, Oh My Lovin’ Brother. So the basis of This Land is set in prayer. Seeing the form the song would take four years down the line, this seems strikingly apt. This Land is Your Land would become a song that reflects as much the harshness of the American dream as the yearning to make that dream more inclusive. Though the lyrics are very close to the shape they would eventually take, each verse closes with “God blessed America for me” instead of “This land was made for you and me.”

At the time Guthrie’s biting social critique still found warm grounds in America. Steinbeck had just published Grapes of Wrath two years prior and it was already made into a John Ford movie. Tied in with that movie Guthrie appeared on a benefit for the “John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers,” where he announced to be pleased to be pleased to be performing in a “Rapes of Graft” show. It was on this show where he was discovered by Alan Lomax. By the early forties, Lomax was hard on his way of becoming an institution himself. Spurred by his father John Lomax, Alan had made it his career to preserve the American folk song. Alan had travelled the Deep South with his father, recording prisoners and Gospel choirs with their 350-pound Presto machine, funded by the Library of Congress, of which archives the recordings would become a part. In his day to day business at the Library Alan was aided by the shy, skinny, acne covered, Harvard drop out Peter Seeger. In Woody, Alan saw a raw talent, untainted by the popular styles that had diluted folk music in Alan’s mind ever since Jimmy Rodgers broke through. Impressed by Woody’s performance at the benefit, Lomax convinced Guthrie to come to NY where he would record him. While in NY Guthrie struck up a friendship with Seeger, which would lead to the latter’s performing career. Guthrie and Seeger formed a socialist folk group called the Almanac singers of which they would be the core. Living in a Greenwhich village commune that stayed close to socialist ideals, while other musicians would drift in an out.

Woody Guthrie; This Land is Your Land

It wouldn’t be until April 16th, 1944 however that Guthrie would record the song that would prove to be his lasting legacy as part of what would become known as the Asch recordings. The recording session was ‘produced’ by Moe Asch of Folkway Records. The sessions recorded by Asch were mostly informal affairs. Moe would pay Woody twenty to twenty-five dollars and a steak dinner, Guthrie sang his songs in return. The results are rudimentary even for those days. The crackling nature of the recordings do not make them easy to digest, but for those willing to listen they’re a treasure chest of folk poetry and raw politically commentary with a satirical twist. Ironically Guthrie delivered his seminal works at a time where it would become increasingly hard for him and Seeger to perform in public. In the slipstream of World War II the cold war began, Guthrie’s vision of America would soon find itself in hostile grounds. The lines that Woody had written for This Land simply reeked too much of socialism for the likes of McCarthy and his committee for un-American activities.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Though This Land became widely popular in school and scouting, these lines were dropped in popular use under the pressure of times. The same pressure that would seriously side track Pete Seeger’s career. When Seeger was forced to appear the House Un-American Activitees Committee, designed to smoke out communist by paranoid pit-bull senator McCarthy, Seeger was enjoying the golden age of his career with the Weavers, an enormously popular folk group. As a result of McCarthy’s which hunt, the Weavers and Seeger were blacklisted and found it difficult to find work. Seeger himself was initially even sentenced to ten years of prison for contempt of court in 1961 because he defied the committee. Seeger had refused to plead the Fifth (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) when he appeared before the committee in 1955. Instead he opted for the First Amendment: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." As a result of the blacklisting Seeger had to make a living out of teaching children banjo and folk songs for the longest time. Something he himself found highly ironic, as teaching children would be the perfect channel to indoctrinate a future generation with communist sympathies should that have been his objective.

Allegedly encouraged by Jon Landau, Springsteen began his life long obsession with Guthrie in the early eighties when Landau set him down to watch Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. This Land is Your Land first appeared in the set list in New York on December 28th, 1980 after Springsteen had read Joe Klein’s book on Guthrie. Introducing the song we hear a Springsteen that is still budding when it comes to his political awareness, though the song and Guthrie’s life grabbed him, much of it still appears to be on an instinctive level. Fittingly, Springsteen’s performances of the song in the eighties would be the ‘censored’ lyrics, with the earlier mentioned sharp edges taken off. Springsteen’s version of the song here is still a tad slow and dragging, feeling more like a meditation, evoking a feeling of America rather than a commentary. Ironically, with the lyrics cropped, the song, in feeling, feels a bit too close to Irvine Berlin’s God Bless America for comfort. After being frequently appearing in the sets throughout the River and the Born in the USA tour, the song was dropped for a near 25 years, getting a mere a sole appearance in 1996 during the peak of Springsteen’s Guthrie obsession with the Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Guthrie’s political vision had, however, firmly edged itself in Springsteen’s take on America. Nebraska, for a large part, was built around the people who fell short of the American Dream and you could argue that Born in the USA is Springsteen’s own This Land. Like Woody’s song Born in the USA is at once an anthem celebrating America while venomously biting at its dark shadow.

As the decades progressed, Springsteen’s political awareness grew more pronounced. The instinctive feeling would gradually be replaced by a sharper political vision that would eventually result in blatant and oft criticized partisanship under the Bush administration of the passed eight years. To underscore this, This Land started to resurface during last falls Obama Rallies, including some the lines that originally gave the song its sharp edge. With a more staccato and biting phrasing Springsteen added the relief office verse, before allowing the audience to take over, pushing the song in the Yes We Can chant he started it with. With the economic crisis, finding millions of Americans out of a job and thousands living in tents, those lyrics suddenly seem eerily contemporary. The song’s dark shadow feels as real today as it did when it was first written. Yet in Springsteen’s hands the song becomes an resilient pro-active anthem of hope, as much as his own song the Rising. Though the latter arguably will never become as engraved in our collective conscious as Woody Guthrie’s folk masterpiece.

After President Obama’s election Springsteen helped rehabilitate the song even further with the help of Pete Seeger, on who’s insistence the songs most controversial lyric was added, at then still President-elect Obama’s inauguration concert. This performance also saw the “No Trespassing” sign lyric restored. No inauguration concert and no actual inauguration did ever breathe the sense of history in the making as much as Obama’s. The proceedings mobilized a staggering 2 million people wanting to be a part of it. Obama would be sworn into office not only after 8 years of devastating policies of the Bush administration, but also the day after Martin Luther King day, 40 years after he was shot outside his Memphis hotel. In all the fuss it is easy to miss that the event was also the rehabilitation of Pete Seeger who was blacklisted some 55 years earlier. Seeger, now 89, has found himself enjoying a full re-evaluation in recent years. Hot on the heels of Springsteen’s world tour and album, celebrating the music he had strived so hard to preserve, Seeger had been the subject of an impressive documentary that not only chronicled his life but was a testimony of the power of music as well. The inauguration concert seems like a crownpiece on this rehabilitation. Though perhaps only visible for the keen observer, to me at least, it added to the promise that America is able to rehabilitate itself and truly make this land a land for you and me.

The inauguration concert wasn't the first time the Boss and Pete colaborated. Appleseed records released two duets with both gentlemen in 2007, Hobo's Lullabye and Springsteen's own Tom Joad. The first featured on the Give Us Your Poor CD with the proceeds going to the homeless.

Sharon Jones; This Land is Your Land

This wouldn't be Boss Tracks if I wouldn't slap you in the face with a fine serving straight from one of those half forgotten 45 rpm records. One of my favorite recent versions of This Land is Your Land comes from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse on her Back to Black album, but if you ask me Sharon Jones is the real deal. This serving is the flipside to her single What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Right on Track, Working on a Dream

An advance copy of Working on a Dream slipped into my mail box today. Exactly the excuse I needed to re-start this blog again. I realize I have been absent for a couple of months. A thing or two changed in my private life, things which are a happy distraction away from the Internet. Keeping up Boss Tracks in the way I did was time consuming, a luxury that only a single man can allow himself. I'll try to get things back on track, be it on a slowed down pace. Seems a waste to let all the work I had up till now go to waste.

Working on a Dream comes hot off the heels of the Magic tour. In advance press releases Springsteen had already explained that the album was born out of the excitement of that tour. Springsteen wanted to channel that excitement into the studio with tracks recorded in between dates and finished after the tour. Considering the schedule of the Magic tour and the events that followed, that notion alone makes the album a tour the force of sorts. Those who followed the tour closely will have noticed how that tour evolved from an angry burst of R&R exorcism of Bush's administration and the damage that did to America to a celebration of life and the following the tragic death of Dan Federici. Near the tail end of the tour that celebration was injected with a large dose of hope when Springsteen aligned himself closer to the Obama campaign. It is that energy that finds its way into his latest serving.

Working on a Dream is an album of mixed blessings. Like most fans I'm exited that there's new material the Boss is going to tour behind. But like a lot of those fans, I'm not sure what to make of this album. I've always been the type of fan who's admired his craftsmanship. In my mind Springsteen's lyrics were his forte. His economic cinematic portraits of America and his vivid sketches of human relationships were in my mind without peer. Influenced by Flannery O'Conner and other, Springsteen lyrics were short stories set to music with an uncanny eye for detail and the complexities of life. Springsteen's best lyrics, like Brilliant Disguise, Used Cars or You're Missing never compromised those complexities. This album, unfortunately, does. Though the album's lush production and graceful melodies breathe an hopeful, carefree and happy Springsteen dealing with his own mortality and the value of love and life, the lyrics never reach the level we've grown accustomed. The title track is a prime example of this. Never before was there a Springsteen song that breathed hope without reserve or fear like the first single of the album. Breezy and catchy the song sticks like bubble gum on your sneakers. While the song is nice enough to whistle along to when feeling down, it misses the double layers and complexities to make a real connection to our daily challenges.

More songs suffer from underdevelopment of the lyrics. The opening track Outlaw Pete has the sound of grandeur. In quick passing it seems a Jungleland with a Morricone twist. Yet the song's clumsy comedy and likewise metaphors keep it from epic status. Something similar happens with Queen of the Supermarket, a rather akward tale about a crush on a checkout girl. While the arrangement is exceptionally subtle and graceful for a Springsteen song, it fails to hit mark, it doesn't become another Sandy, while the music promises just that. In short, I haven't been this ambivalent towards a Springsteen album since Human Touch and Lucky Town. Working on a Dream seems a photo negative of those two offerings. Where those '92 albums offered us some of Springsteen's best songs on relationship packaged in a dismal and uninspired production, his last goes the other way around.

Because of its lush production however, Working on a Dream is much easier to digest. Set apart from his impressive catalog of lyrics, Working on a Dream works surprisingly well. On prize songs like What Love Can Do, Tomorrow Never Knows or the homage to Phantom Dan, The Last Carnival, Working on a Dream shines in pop delight. On the best moments this album becomes a forgotten relic from the sixties. Working on a Dream sounds like it drags the Byrds, Brian Wilson, the Stones, Leiber and Stoller up to E-Street. The band haven't sounded this good on a record since the River, which doesn't mean they are revisiting. Springsteen still manages to explore new forgotten corners of American music's past. Though the album doesn't have the backbone to really shelter you from winter's bitter cold, it is a nice and pleasant spring breeze that reminds you of the promise summer holds.

Rolling Stone gives the album a full five stars. Let's be honest, three or four would have been enough.
NPR offers an advance listen for those who haven't made their minds up yet.
The Boss himself talks extensively to the Observer about Working on a Dream here.
On a side note, you can find Van Zandt's comments on the Guitar Hero release here.