Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Maurice & The Radiants - Baby You've Got It

Example Example Maurice McAlister and Mac McLauren

Patti and the Emblems had a great record on Herald called ‘The Sound Of Music Makes Me Wanna Dance’. When it comes to 1960’s soul music, no phrase could be more fitting. Sure you have your classic ballads, but as any fanatical Northern Soul collector will tell you, it’s the dancers that matter. The records that strike a chord somewhere in your head (or more appropriately your feet) that makes you want to get up and wade into the crowd, limbs akimbo, ready to swing your arms, legs and ass in time to the beat. Whether or not you have the rhythmic wherewithal to do so without looking like a jackass is beside the point (and as long as you’re not stepping on your fellow dancers it shouldn’t matter to them either). Outside of your committed “dancers” (i.e. people that actually know and practice the steps to specific dances, and outside of your ballroom types who does that anymore?) anyone that is moved by the music to get up and shake it ought to be applauded. The impulse to move to the music is one of the last, real (and not explicitly sexual or religious) ecstatic outlets we have. Not to say that everyone on the dance floor is a dervish, spinning to the visions in their head, but that to be so taken by the beat and the greatness of a record is a special experience. I first heard ‘Baby You’ve Got It’ on a mid-80s compilation of tunes by UK 60’s mod band the Action. That band made covering great (but obscure) US soul records something of a cottage industry (see my man Bill Luther’s article on the subject). It was on their records that I first heard brilliant soul songs like ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’ (Marvelettes),In My Lonely Room’ (Martha & The Vandellas) and ‘Since I Lost My Baby’ (Temptations). Over the years, via other friends and collectors I managed to track down the original versions of many of these tunes, and was blown away by how much better the originals were. Maurice McAlister and the Radiants made a bunch of great 45s for Chess between 1962 and 1966 when McAlister left to record with Mac McLauren as ‘Maurice & Mac’ (also for Chess). ‘Baby You’ve Got It’ (co-written by McAlister) is both a great, hook laden pop song (with a brilliant lead vocal by McAlister and backing from a young Minnie Riperton among others) and a pulsing dance record. The backbeat is always strong (with a prominent bass line) and the arrangement (especially the strings) makes for one of the most stylish slices of mid-60’s urban soul ever committed to wax. Listening to this record, it’s easy to imagine dancers working it out in 1960’s Chicago (and London), and in Soul nights all over the world today.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Lionel Hampton and His Inner Circle of Jazz - Greasy Greens

There’s an old saw out there about “second acts” (i.e. they either do or do not exist…) They do, at least in the world of music. Look at the careers of the B52’s, Elton John etc. Of course those examples would lead one to believe that the comeback requires a certain loss of quality to succeed, bringing into question what level of pure nostalgia is responsible for said return. There are also second acts, that flip the formula over, resulting in work of high quality and little or no public recognition. One such second act belonged to Lionel Hampton. Hampton, well-known jazzbo and part of Benny Goodman’s famous integrated groups was a master of the vibes (who started out as drummer) and was much beloved by jazzers the world over. The 1960’s rolled around, and the world wasn’t all that interested in big jazz bands anymore. The first (most severe) decline in the big bands had occurred in the 1940’s when the audiences/bookings required to keep a large band on the road (and paid) tapered off. Very few of the popular big bands stayed together (Woody Herman was famous for keeping his band alive for much longer than most). Anyway, Hampton, who had abandoned the cutting edge in the 30’s when he left Goodman’s employ, carried on. Sometime in the early 60’s he formed his own ‘Glad-Hamp’ label, and started releasing 45’s and LPs. Some of these 45s were interesting but not terribly exciting examples of soul jazz. One of them (the one we gather here to chat about today) was a stone solid gas. At this point it’s only fair to mention that I didn’t find this one on my own. My good buddy Haim (at hepped me to it’s existence a few years back, and me, with my wig suitably flipped worked post-haste to track down a copy of my own. The tune, ‘Greasy Greens’ had been recorded by Hampton on a 1967 live LP from the Newport Jazz Festival. That version is but the bare bones, a rough sketch as it were, of the brilliance to come. The version on the Glad-Hamp 45 is a revelation. At first, the thought of someone like Lionel Hampton getting his funk on is much like the first time I saw Bob Hope in the 1969 film ‘How To Commit Marriage’, in which the then 65 year old Hope donned sideburns and a Nehru jacket to appear “with it”. Unlike that masquerade, Hampton’s quest for soul gold was a decided success. Beginning with a thunderous drum roll (and a bass drum that sounds like it was right under the recording console), and Hamp’s riffing vibes, ‘Greasy Greens’ explodes with a super-tight horn section . The tune has a bottom that makes Beyonce look like Calista Flockhart, and as a result is supremely danceable and quite decidedly funky. And just when you think the greens couldn’t get any greeeeazier, the saxophones drop in with this crazy semi-echoplexed solo. The grooviest thing of all is that Hamp drops back and is happy just to provide a shimmering vibraphonic backing to the whole affair. What is most astounding (aside from how great a 45 this is) is the rawness. Hampton wasn’t the only old-schooler striving for relevance in the Age of Aquarius, but he was certainly one of the best. This is no cheaply concocted afterthought to try to drag a few kids through the box office. ‘Greasy Greens’ is the kind of record you make when you have your heart in the process. Hamp later went on to record a number of “funky” LPs for the Brunswick label, but nothing as tight and satisfying as “Greasy Greens”. He also went on to record the stirring funk anthem ‘We Need Nixon’, so go figure…
On a related note, Philadelphia DJ George Woods ("The Guy With The Goods") lifted the melody of 'Greasy Greens' for his own record 'Potato Salad Pts 1&2'.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Timebox - Gone Is The Sad Man

Example Timebox
Future Rutle John Halsey (2nd from left), Mike Patto (center)
Peter "Ollie" Halsall (2nd from right)
British Psychedelia.. two words guaranteed to conjure up the image of bucktoothed UnionJack-ass Austin Powers, gallivanting around in the Life Magazine approximation of Carnaby Street gear, spouting focus-grouped catch phrases like a schizophrenic parakeet in search of its next biscuit. Needless to say (though I’m going to say it anyway) the psychedelic music that came out of the UK between 1966 and 1970 was sporadically brilliant, usually above average and always interesting (often more so than its US contemporaries). The fact that the music is known largely through the later works of its proponents (i.e. those players that went on to produce mountains of humorless, though lucrative progressive rock) is a shame. Aside from a few notable exceptions (Pink Floyd mostly) it is a genre in which most of the gold to be mined is hidden on hard to find (sometimes unspeakably rare) 45s, hoarded by the anal-retentive collector class (of which I proudly count myself a charter member). The fact that many of these gems have been reissued hardly matters because in most cases the only people buying these compilations are the aforementioned record collectors and the tenderfoot in their ranks. A brief primer for the uninitiated would have to include a definition of “freakbeat”, that being the transitional sounds created on the cusp of true psychedelia by bands that had yet to fully break with their rock/beat roots. Truth be told nobody called it freakbeat then (1965-1967) and precious few do now, but enough people that know what they’re talking about felt the need to draw that particular line in the sand so we’ll let it be. It doesn’t help that the definition of psychedelic (in relation to music) is extremely flexible. You had bands like Tintern Abbey, who’s single 45 ‘Beeside’ b/w ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ is not only the ne plus ultra of mind bending sounds but is so rare that copies have changed hands for prices in excess of one thousand British pounds, and that my friends is not chicken feed. You also had groups like the Herd (featuring an embryonic Peter Frampton) who were basically a pop band with psychedelic tints. Its gets complicated when you pick up a copy of New Musical Express from 1968 and realize that these bands were shooting for the same slice of the Top 10 (and shopping at the same tailor). The cold hard fact is that Tintern Abbey, while brilliant were far too weird to ever grab the attention of the teen set. The Herd on the other hand had teen idol Frampton ("The Face of 1968") at the helm and the quality songwriting team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikely feeding them hits. To compare British and American psychedelic music, is often (with apologies to Syd Barrett) an exercise in ‘Apples and Oranges’. Where American psychedelia is stoned and often dark, UK psyche is wistful and sometimes twee (occasionally insufferably so). British psyche has at it’s roots classical music of the Romantic and modern eras, the Music Hall, and the literature of writers like Lewis Carroll, Lord Dunsany and JRR Tolkien, all tied together in the framing device of Beatles-inspired mid-60’s rock music. The British approach to psychedelia was much more “pop” based than its American counterpart, often resulting in perfect 3 minute singles (no Fillmore West-ian hour-long navel gazing here mate). I mention these bands to give the reader some idea of the wide variety of artists dipping into some part of the psychedelic spectrum in the UK at the time. Their differences illustrate the gap that often separates credibility and popularity, obscurity and fame, and the varying degrees of quality in between. The band Timebox falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Recording 8 45’s for the Picadilly, Pye and Deram labels between 1967 and 1969, Timebox were one of the more interesting bands of the day. They featured the multi-talented Mike Patto and Ollie Halsall on guitar and vibes respectively (both sang) and covered a wide range of material from Cal Tjader’s ‘Soul Sauce’, to US soul tunes like The Rascals ‘Come On Up’ , The Four Seasons 'Beggin'' and Bunny Sigler’s ‘Girl Don’t Make Me Wait’. The vibes gave their records a jazzy texture which they often carried on stage with them. Aside from their soul and jazz inflected recordings, Timebox laid down some outstanding psyche-pop records, the best of which ‘Gone Is the Sad Man’ appeared as the b-side to ‘Girl Don’t Make Me Wait’ in 1968. ‘Gone is the Sad Man’, co written by Patto and Halsall is just about a perfect example of UK psyche. It balances a dreamy texture (Halsall’s vibes help this a lot) with a biting guitar lead, a classic melody and vocal harmonies with enough phasing for the heads in the room. The influence of the Beatles is strong (as it was in probably 80% of all pop records in 1968). The tune manages to be sunny without resorting to treacle and psychedelic without wearing its “far-out-ness” on its sleeve. It’s just a great pop record, the kind of 45 I can listen to over and over again. Following the demise of Timebox, Patto and Halsall went to form the group Patto, and drummer Jon Halsey took the Beatles vibe to the next level, appearing as drummer Barry Wom in the Rutles.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Sir Douglas Quintet Car Crash Recovery Blues

Example The Sir Douglas Quintet
Augie Meyers (far left), Doug Sahm (far right)
Back in early 1990, I had just returned from a grand tour of the South (with my brother Chris), in which we visited friends, family and tourist traps in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville. A fine time was had by all, and I returned to NJ well rested. The Monday after getting back, having affixed an Elvis sticker to the trunk of my Chevy Spectrum (in the most ironic sense possible), I left for work. About a half mile from work, I leaned over to tune the radio, and when I looked up I was a very short distance from the back of a car that has stopped to make a left turn. Naturally, I slammed on the brakes, but was way too close to stop, and promptly rammed that car, almost pushing it into oncoming traffic. That car was totaled. My car was totaled. I had a big cut on my forehead and some sore muscles, but was otherwise OK (thankfully, so was the person in the car I hit). The whole episode was a huge drag, which would haunt me financially for years to come (I’ll save that story for another time). My car was a few months from being paid off, and I hardly had the money to go out and buy a new one. Well…my Dad came and picked me up at the hospital, and I went to spend the night at my parents house. So, I’m sitting on my Mom’s couch, aching, generally feeling sorry for myself and dreading what kind of trouble (financial and otherwise) I was going to be facing when this all shook out (like, was I gonna get sued etc. and how as I going to get to work without what Long Duck Dong decribed as an “auto-mo-beeeeellll…”). Utterly depressed. Then, out-of-the-blue, a friend (who in the ensuing years has just about lost his mind after being ground up by the teeth of an adulthood he was ill equipped to deal with, and thus shall remain nameless) called and asked if I wanted to go see the Sir Douglas Quintet at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Well, hell yes. I think I had known about the gig, but had written it off because I was supposed to be working that night. Serendipity, knowing what was good for me, stepped in and destroyed my car - and the car of another - so I might be there. Mysterious ways indeed. My pal came and got me, and we drove to Hoboken where I figured I could find succor and consolation in a mixture of righteous music and beer. All the way up I bitched and moaned about how terrible the fallout from this accident was going to be (completely ignoring how lucky I was that no one had been seriously hurt), and wondering what I was going to do. The irony in the fact, that I was being chauffered to this show by one of the WORST drivers this state has ever known (the kind of driver that makes you wonder how they could possibly keep getting insured) was lost on me. We managed to arrive safely in Hoboken, and right after finding a parking space managed to run into a couple of very good friends, who, after hearing my tale of woe, took a page from the friend handbook, and promptly got me high. Things were looking up. Not long after that we all walked up the hill to Maxwells. For those who don’t know, for a while Maxwells was the greatest rock’n’roll bar in America (maybe the world). One of the smallest music rooms around (which despite it’s size managed to host almost every major alternative - in the broadest sense of the word - act of the 80’s/90’s), fantastic selection of beer, quiet neighborhood (almost zero chance of getting mugged/robbed or having your car stolen), and it was in New Jersey. Anyway…we all walked into the bar, said our hellos to a few familiar faces and proceeded to enter the back (music) room. I found a bar stool and began to drink. So you’re reading this and thinking “So what? Glad to hear you managed to find some friends with whom to become intoxicated following your careless driving episode, but why should I care?” Man, that was cold…. But I digress. I was really, really depressed (did I already say that?). I knew, despite the fact that I was “up and around”, that the fallout from the accident was going to suck, and I didn’t really have any money, and blah blah blah….you know? The fact that in the space of a few hours I had managed to hook up with some good friends, get high, order a beer and sit waiting for a true hero of American rock’n’roll music to take the stage, was – as I saw it – a significant turnaround. The key part of that run on sentence, was the phrase “true hero of American rock’n’roll music”. The Sir Douglas Quintet or more specifically Doug Sahm was (at least in 1990) a relic of a bygone era. One hit wonders who jumped onto the national stage in 1965, and promptly fell off again. That’s the short version. The longer version – which you will always get here – sees the many incarnations of the band continuing to make great music on through the end of the 60’s and right up to the present. Doug Sahm started making records as a 14 year old in mid-50’s Texas, recording several R&B inflected sides before the birth of the Sir Douglas Quintet. That this birth took place in the diseased – though musically prolific mind – of Huey P. Meaux (otherwise known as the Crazy Cajun), is important. Meaux, deciding that he needed something to compete with Beatle-fueled Anglophilia, decided to give the band a decidedly English sounding name, and put them on the cover of their first album shrouded in shadows (to hide the fact that the Quintet was composed of a couple of Texas hillbillys and three Chicanos, and not another gang of tea and crumpeteers from the old sod). Even more remarkable is the fact that this ruse held together even though the miraculous product of this collaboration sounded like Ray Charles fronting a Tex-Mex band. ‘She’s About A Mover’ hit the Top 40 in 1965 and got the Quintet on Shindig, Bandstand etc, and launched Doug Sahm and his compadre Augie Meyers (he of the SDQ’s trademark Farfisa organ) on a 40 year odyssey. That the tune was a bit of genius is undeniable. That the pop charts were not ready for a continued assault from these synthesizers of R&B, rock, norteno, cojunto etc is similarly carved in stone. The band dropped off the charts (though recording several excellent singles for Meaux’s Tribe label) and following a 1966 pot bust Sir Doug put some flowers in his hair and headed for that Shangri-La that Sid Dithers once referred to as San Francisky. There, in 1969 a reconstituted SDQ crafted the absolutely brilliant ‘Mendocino’ LP, grazed the Top 40 yet again and went on to make a lot of outstanding, moderately successful records for a variety of labels. In the early 90’s, Sahm and Meyers hooked up with Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez to form the Texas Tornados, and had a few years of bonafide country stardom (and excellent albums) ahead of them. Anyway….When the SDQ took the stage that night, I just sat there and basked in the glow of great music, played and sung by great musicians in a tiny little bar in Hoboken, NJ (probably smaller than the places they played 25 years before back in Texas). I was transported (as all truly great music ought to be able to do) and for about 2 hours - as the SDQ laid down some of the most authentic “soul” music as has ever been played – my smashed up car (and the car that we had joined together to smash) and the cut on my head and the ache in my back and my uncertain future all vanished. It was just me, my friends, 75 to 80 other people and the Sir Douglas Quintet experiencing the kind of communion that happens on Friday nights in clubs all over the world, where people band together with their beer and their music and file their troubles away, at least for a night. Only here, in Hoboken, the music was so much better. It certainly helped that they ended the show with a brilliant medley of 'She's About A Mover', the 13th Floor Elevators 'You're Gonna Miss Me' and ? & the Mysterians '96 Tears' (kind of a Rosetta Stone of Texas 60's punk). Maybe a year later, when Sahm and Meyers were touring as part of the ‘Last Real Texas Blues Band’ (with pigtailed Texas sax wizard Rocky Morales along for the ride) I had a chance to rap with Sir Doug (and Augie) at the bar, and he was every bit as cool as you’d imagine. Funny, down to earth and get this…he could not stand George Bush (that’s Daddy Bush, but I imagine had he lived to see Dubya in the White House he wouldn’t have dug him much either). Sir Doug passed away in 1999 (he was only 58). When I heard he was gone, I remembered how he and his music lifted me up that night in 1990, and I smiled.
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