Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Letta Mbulu - Welele

Miss Letta Mbulu
The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in the producer David Axelrod, especially in relation to his groundbreaking late 60’s work on the Capitol label with Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, Henry Cain, his own ‘Songs of...’ LPs and others. Axelrod created broad, funky soundscapes which have been sampled countless times by artists like De La Soul, DJ Shadow, A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde and others. Many of these classic albums have been reissued in whole and in compilations. One of the artists for whom Axelrod worked his magic, but never had the chart success of Adderley or Rawls was Letta Mbulu. Mbulu was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa. In the early 1960’s she toured the UK and South Africa with the company of a musical called ‘King Kong’ (I don’t know if it had anything to do with the famous gorilla, but I am intrigued...). In 1965, Mbulu (and her husband Caiphus Semanya) fled the apartheid of South Africa and immigrated to the US, joining fellow expatriates Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa (all of whom had also worked in ‘King Kong’). She worked as a singer in NY (beginning a working relationship with Cannoball Adderley that would last several years), and recorded a one-off single (with Semanya, Gwangwa and his wife) as Letta and the Safaris for Columbia (I’d love to hear that!). Mbulu and Semanya relocated to the West Coast in 1966 where she first crossed paths with Axelrod. I haven’t seen any direct reference to how they connected but I wouldn’t be surprised if Adderley (who had already been recording for Capitol for a few years) had something to do with it. Mbulu recorded her first LP with Axelrod, “Letta Mbulu Sings” in 1967. Today’s track is from her second LP, 1968’s ‘Free Soul”. Although it involved a very small group of artists, you shouldn’t underestimate the influence of the fusion of South African sounds with American R&B that was happening in the mid-60’s. Masekela’s mid-60’s LPs for MGM were in a more “straight ahead” jazz vein, but his recordings for the Uni and Chisa labels, especially the huge hit ‘Grazing In The Grass’ (written by another South African, Philemon Hou), Miriam Makeba’s ‘Pata Pata’ (both ‘Grazing...’ and ‘Pata Pata’ spawned countless covers), and lesser known recordings by Mbulu and Gwangwa (who recorded for a number of labels) made their way into the pop consciousness. Both of the LPs that Mbulu recorded with David Axelrod were composed almost entirely of songs written by Caiphus Semanya. ‘Welele’ is described in the liner notes as the cry of a wanderer who asks for some tobacco and proceeds to tell his tale of woe. Whatever context that provides is in the end unnecessary, because Mbulu’s soaring vocal along with HB Barnum’s arrangements and Axelrod’s production created an uplifting experience. The band on the session, composed largely of LA session vets like Mike Melvoin and Don Randi is tight and ever so funky. Listen, how at the very beginning of the record they pair vibes and boo-bams to mimick the sound of a kalimba. I especially dig the vibes and the flute solo towards the end of the song. After her tenure with Capitol, Mbulu went on to record for Chisa, as a vocalist for Hugh Masekela and as a soloist, often with the backing of several members of the Crusaders (also a Chisa act at the time). She continued to record (appearing on the soundtracks to ‘Roots’ and ‘The Color Purple’) and returned (with Semanya) to South Africa in 1991. I should note that I had already pulled a few Axelrod-related records to blog when I discovered that Oliver Wang over at Soul Sides did an Axelrod feature on 11/19 (none of the same records) that’s worth checking out (as Soul Sides always is). On a related note, I’ll be dropping a funky Lou Rawls side in the next few weeks. Keep your ears peeled...
Thanks also to my man BigSpliff for selling me this gem!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Mighty Hannibal - Jerkin' the Dog

The Mighty Hannibal
I want eeeeeeeevrybody...
That feel like I feel... To hold your hands up... And clap your hands!! Words to live by. Words sung by the great be-turbaned one, Atlanta’s own James T. Shaw, aka the Mighty Hannibal. Imagine if you will, a big sweaty (very likely intoxicated) southern guy strolls out on the screen to introduce the Mighty Hannibal. The Mighty H stands there, as if frozen in time, waiting for the tape to start running, and when it does, he recites the words above. But you weren’t paying attention because you were hyp-MO-tized by the Mighty Hannibal’s silky white pant-suit and gold lame turban. You are momentarily stunned, and distracted once again by the fact that your 22-month-old sonny boy is dancing in front of the TV because his cute little ears are filled with the hoodoo coming out of the speakers- and even though that is in and of itself incredibly cool you wonder if it might have some unintended, long-term consequences (“I told you Dad, I want a TURBAN not a baseball cap!!!”). The above scene is all true....courtesy once again of ‘The Beat’. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial (this must be the fourth time I’ve cited those DVDs in the last few weeks), it seems that every viewing brings another such revelation (though that was the only time that Miles got a hot foot, so props to Hannibal...). I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. ‘Jerkin’ The Dog’ is a smoking hot slice of mid-1960’s soul that ought to be required listening for those affected by lethargy of any kind, as it should be enough to remedy said affliction (i.e. It’ll peel the wallflowers out of their seats and have them sweating up the dance floor in no time at all...). Mighty Hannibal came into the world as James T. Shaw. He got his start in a doowop group with Edward Patton and Bubba Knight of the Pips (as in Gladys Knight and the...) and went on to record his own sides after relocating to Los Angeles in 1958. He went on to record for King in the early 60’s, eventually landing back in Atlanta on Wendell Parker’s Shurfine records, where ‘Jerkin’ The Dog’ was his debut 45 for the label in 1965. The record would go on to chart regionally. Interestingly enough, Hannibal’s backing band on this (and his other Shurfine 45s) was a white band called St. John & The Cardinals, which featured guitarist Paul Goddard who would go on to play in the Atlanta Rhythm Section. To say that ‘Jerkin’ The Dog’ is anthemic, is simultaneously hyperbole and underestimation (probably depending on your level of intoxication). The opening lines, quoted above give off a gospel-ish, brow-mopping call the holy spirit vibe that is amplified all the more by the comparatively profane nature of what follows. The alternating guitar lines, one playing the signature riff and the other going... CHANK! CHANK! CHANK! time with the drums is a sure fire dancers call-to-arms (and legs), producing the intended jerking motion. This brings me back to the film of Hannibal working it out on ‘The Beat’, in which what is basically a lip-synched performance rises to another level entirely. Hannibal, the ties of his turban draping down his back, flanked by Go-Go dancers, performs the tune like some kind of funky shaman casting a spell on every market in which the show was broadcast (I’d be willing to bet that for months afterward the sales of turbans went through the roof all over the south). If the stage had been decorated with zulu war masks and blazing torches the effect couldn’t have been more hypnotic (in some ways the sterility of the TV studio makes Hannibal’s appearance all the more extreme). Hannibal went on to have a hit in 1966 with ‘Hymn No. 5’ (the flipside of which, ‘Fishing Pole’ is a killer), which was also issued on Josie. He would record for the Loma label, spend time as a pimp, have an extended period of drug-related troubles and do a stint in jail for tax evasion before emerging in the 70’s recording for the Aware label. Norton records put together an outstanding collection of Hannibal’s best work (including ‘Jerkin’ The Dog’). Pick it!
PS Check out Brian Poust's excellent Georgia Soul site which features detailed info on Georgia artists and labels (like Shurfine).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Mamie Galore - Special Agent 34-24-38

Miss Mamie Galore
If you’ve been reading in the last few weeks you’ve seen me mention (and rave about) the recently issued DVDs of the mid-60’s soul/R&B TV show ‘The Beat’. Today’s artist appears on one of those volumes, performing this very selection. Mamie Galore was born Mamie Davis in Mississippi in 1940. She performed around the Delta with Herman Scott and the Swinging Kings, later moved on to the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, and then to Little Milton’s band (which brought her to Chicago). In 1965 she was signed to St. Lawrence records, one of the great Chicago soul labels which also released sides by Monk Higgins, the Vontastics, the Ideals, Chuck Bernard (who also shows up on ‘The Beat’) and Johnny Sayles. Her first 45 for the label was today’s feature, “Special Agent 34-24-38”. I’ll assume that a lot of the folks that stop by this blog are probably (a lot) younger than I am, so I’ll stop here to give a little perspective. While any record with a title like “Special Agent 34-24-38” should give pause to even the most jaded digger, making their greedy little fingers tingle and their anticipatory soul satisfaction jump a notch or two, they ought to know that Miz Galore was not operating in a vacuum. Thanks to the popularity of the Sean Connery ‘James Bond’ films, the mid 60’s saw a boom in secret agent/spy themed entertainment on all fronts with movies, TV, books and records reflecting the newfound obsession. I could go on for a week about all the cool Bond knock-off’s on the big and little screens (straight and spoofs), but a brief survey of the soul records that came out in the wake of Bond-mania will have to suffice. Some faves: The Olympics – Secret Agents Jamo Thomas – I Spy for the FBI The Miracles – Come Spy With Me Perry & The Harmonics – Do the Monkey with James Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers – Sock It To Em JB Agent Double O Soul – Edwin Starr ..and I’m sure there are a bunch of others that I’ve either forgotten or never heard of. Needless to say the soul folk weren’t letting any moss grow on that fad, and not surprisingly most of the records are very cool. “Special Agent 34-24-38”. (co-written by Monk Higgins and an certain “E. Jones” who I’m pretty sure is Chi-town DJ E. Rodney Jones, if I’m wrong let me know) starts out with a “Peter Gunn”-esque riff, before Mamie drops in with a rap about her experience in the ways of love. In fact, aside from the title, there’s not a whole lot of “secret agent” stuff happening, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very tasty side. Galore had a high, sweet voice and the way she kind of runs out the word ‘Galore’ at the end of the chorus is a thing to behold. When she performed the tune on ‘The Beat’, she was strapped into a tight dress, wig-hat on, and seemed a little ill at ease, but I can only assume that even though she was a seasoned performer, she might have been intimidated by appearing on TV. Either way, it’s cool to see her perform (even if it is a lipsynch). She recorded a few more 45s for St. Lawrence, one for Sack (‘It Right Now b/w No Right To Cry’ , which is a Northern Soul rarity trading in excess of $1000 a copy), and several for Imperial, both as a solo and in duets with Dee Irwin. In 1972 she returned to Mississsippi where she continued to perform (mainly as a blues artist) up to her death in 2001.
NOTE: I may not post again until Monday, so I'll take this opportunity to say Happy Thanksgiving! Have a safe holiday weekend.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Kool & The Gang - Give It Up

Kool & The Gang
Kool & the Gang and I have a long and interesting history (aside from the fact that we both hail from NJ). Back in 1974, when I was doing time in the 6th grade, the funk entered my life in a lasting way. I grew up in the suburbs about 40 miles out of New York City. Developers had taken a rural farm community bordering a major highway and inserted a number of developments. When we moved there – in the mid 60’s – the new developments were largely white, and almost exclusively Catholic and Jewish (I don’t remember meeting a Protestant kid until I was 10 or 11) - most of the families having been transplanted from NYC and its outer boroughs. Aside from the recent arrivals, most of the remaining population was rural white and black kids, generally less well off than most of the kids I knew. Sadly, over the years, the black population in the schools decreased sharply – the children of the existing families aging out of the school system and new families unable or unwilling to move into the area – to the point that when my youngest sister graduated from high school (nine years after I did) there were almost no black faces in her yearbook. Anyway...I tell you this because back in 1974, there were still a lot of black kids around, and they introduced me to pretty much the first black music I’d ever heard that wasn’t jazz. The middle school I attended in 6th grade had just opened, and had fairly “modern” attitudes toward the student body, up to and including the presence of a record player in the cafeteria. The black kids, who for the most part hung together (at least in the lunchroom) brought more records in than most, and the one they brought in the most that year– was ‘Wild and Peaceful’ by Kool & The Gang. For the entire year, while I ate my liverwurst sandwiches, I was treated to repeated plays of both ‘Hollywood Swinging’ and ‘Jungle Boogie’, two extremely funky songs that I loved then, and still love now. Most of the kids from my neighborhood were sports fiends who had no musical taste to speak of. If I hadn’t heard that particular record when I did, there’s no telling what I would have ended up listening to. So, flash forward a few years to the summer after my freshman year in college. It was the second of two summers working food service in the local theme park. It was also by and large one of the worst jobs I ever had (and I had a LOT of crappy jobs). That year I had been promoted and relocated to the pizza stand in the center of the park. Let me tell you there’s nothing quite like shoveling pizza in and out of a 400 degree oven when it’s 85 degrees and humid. I’m guessing that the poor slobs that dug the Panama Canal experienced conditions like that. Anyway...the pizza stand was directly across from a gazebo that featured live bands all day long. Unfortunately they were the kind of bands that filled the bars at the Jersey shore, cranking out approximations of Top 40 pap for drunken secretaries. That summer, the “band” ended every half-hourly set with a rendition of ‘Celebration’ by Kool and the Gang. I already disliked the song for its general insipid-ness, and hearing it sung 15 times a day by a bunch of moonlighting elementary school music teachers turned dislike into hatred. A few years before, Kool & the Gang had taken on a new lead singer – James “JT” Taylor – and had moved firmly into the middle of the road. “Celebration” was both a symptom of that change, and a confirmation (for the band anyway) that they had made the right move (it was a huge hit). All it did for me was sour me on Kool & The Gang in a big way. So...taking another huge leap forward, into the 1990’s and I pick up the CD ‘The Best of Kool & The Gang 1969 – 1976’, mainly to get my hands on ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’ again, and I discover that prior to ‘Wild and Peaceful’, Kool & The Gang were working in the genre of the “funk 45”, and quite successfully at that. I was very pleasantly surprised the first time I heard tracks like ‘Chocolate Buttermilk’ and ‘Funky Stuff’. By the time I started digging for 45s, I had my eyes peeled for Kool & The Gang. Despite the fact that their 45s were not too hard to come by, most of the copies I found were, as the 45 collectors say “skated” and I decided to hold out for decent copies. Jump forward with me one more time to two Sundays ago, and I’m selling 45s and LPs at a record show/swap meet at Asbury Lanes with my buddies DJ Prestige and Big Spliff, and I’m going through Spliff’s crates and pull out a shiny gold album, simply titled ‘The Best of Kool & The Gang’. My curiosity was piqued, so I flip the jacket over to see what tracks are on it and discover that the good folks at De-Lite records had decided to print the track listing in gold ink only infinitesimally darker than the gold leaf of the cover, rendering them almost illegible. So I slip the record out of the jacket and discover that this ‘Best of” is composed entirely of funky tracks. I dip into the handy dandy record guide and discover that this particular LP was released in 1971, after the groups earliest chart successes, and only contained tracks from their first three albums. There in my hands were all of the best funky Kool & The Gang 45s and LP tracks, carefully assembled in a single, comprehensive album. Spliff and I agreed on a price, and I carted the LP home with a couple of other very nice, very cheap finds. Today’s selection was strangely enough never released on 45 and appeared as a track on the groups 1969 debut LP ‘Kool & The Gang’. ‘Give It Up’, in addition to sporting a couple of very tasty breaks is a perfect distillation of the Kool & The Gang sound. While ‘Give It Up’ features familiar elements of urban funk from the late 60’s, it also bears the mark of a band of musicians with jazz roots. The chord changes are sophisticated, the horn charts right on the money, and the groove a little groovier than your average 45. The arrangement has a lot of fantastic touches, especially the pulsing electric piano, and guitar/bass interplay. Drummer ‘Funky’ George Brown lives up to his nickname working a Clyde Stubblefield-worthy beat and the aforementioned breaks which have been sampled numerous times (Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, Eric B & Rakim, X-Clan et al) . If you can get your hands on OG copies of the early Kool & The Gang LPs (which can be a pricey proposition), do so. If not track down the 45s, or pick up the reissues, place on turntable and play repeatedly until all traces of ‘Celebration’ have been erased. You’ll thank me in the morning.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Freddy King - Sen-Sa-Shun

Mr. Freddy King
When I was a kid, my knowledge today’s artist was limited to the following: “Up all night with Freddy King! I got to tell you, poker’s his thing!” See: Railroad, Grand Funk “We’re an American Band” 1973 There, via the bare-chested wailing of Mark Farner my eleven year old ears first heard the name of one of the greatest, most influential blues artists of all time. Unfortunately my frame of reference was very narrow, and as far as I was concerned ‘Freddy King” was every bit as fictitious as the “hotel detective” or “Sweet Sweet Connie” (neither of whom as it turns out was fictitious). Some years down the road, I had the great good fortune to meet one of my all-time best friends, future band-mates and an all around righteous dude, the Bluesman. He got that nickname, not for his Smurf-like qualities, but for the fact that he was as deeply immersed in the blues as anyone I had met until that time. Around 1987 or so, Bluesman made me a stack of cassettes, that were my first serious introduction to the likes of – among others - Slim Harpo and Mr. Freddy King, both of whom have remained lifelong favorites. For this I shall be forever grateful. Freddy King was born in 1934 in Texas. His family moved to Chicago in 1950, where he had the chance to hear, and play with some of the greatest bluesmen of the day. He played background on a number of sessions, before making his first record under his own name in 1957. He signed with the King records subsidiary Federal in 1960 and in 1961 had a string of hits – both vocal and instrumental – that would make him a star. Over the next few years he would record a number of classic tunes, including ‘Hide Away’, which would become a favorite number of Eric Clapton (one of many young guitarists heavily influenced by King) who recorded the number as a member of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. King, like Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and Albert King (no relation) was a guitarist that transcended genres and would provide a blueprint for an entire generation of younger players, including the mighty Jimi Hendrix. Over the course of the last few weeks I’ve mentioned the DVD re-release of the 1960’s TV show ‘The Beat’. One of the highlights of the discs is the appearances on the show by Freddy King (in fact a few years back someone released a compilation composed entirely of King’s performances from the show). Hearing Freddy King is one thing. Seeing him is something else entirely. King was a big dude. So big that his guitar took on ukulele-like proportions cradled in his huge hands. Watching him performing today’s selection ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’ on ‘The Beat’, bending the strings, pouring sweat, conk piled high on his head is a real thrill. I can only imagine what he must have looked like dominating the bandstand in a smoky bar somewhere. ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’ - which was released in mid-1961 - bursts out of the starting gate at a fast tempo. Led by King’s guitar, the band wails, creating a groove built to satisfy blues fans and au-go-go twisters alike. Like many a Texas bluesman, King’s playing had both a hard urban edge and a country twang to it, making for a Chuck Berry-like fusion that could hopscotch between genres without being obvious about it. It’s not hard to see why his sounds translated so well to the dance floors of UK clubs, or why so many rock guitarists gravitated to (and imitated) his style. King would continue to record for Federal and King until 1968. He was then signed to Atlantic/Cotillion where he would record two LPs, both produced by King Curtis (45 heads should keep an eye out for the Cotillion 45 ‘Funky’, which is excellent). After leaving he moved to Leon Russell’s Shelter records where he would record two LPs (one a live album recorded at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters). He had a heavy touring schedule, benefiting from kind of blues/rock co-billing that had become so popular in the era of the psychedelic ballrooms, playing festivals and sharing stages with the likes of Grand Funk Railroad. His last LPs were recorded for the RSO label, and he passed away in 1976, suffering from heart failure. Fortunately much of his best work is available on reissues, and is of course highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mitty Collier - Git Out

Miss Mitty Collier
One of the recurring themes in 60’s soul music (and the discussion thereof in this space) is the gospel roots of it’s performers. Gospel music did a lot to inform the stylings of soul music and this fact is 100% attributable to performers passing from one genre to another (and sometime back again). One such performer is the great Mitty Collier. Collier began her career as a vocalist in the Hayes Ensemble. After an extended visit to Chicago, during which she won a local talent contest several times, Collier was signed to Chess Records, where she began her recording career in 1961. Between ’61 and ’68 she recorded a number of 45s and one LP for the label, including her 1964 R&B Top 10 hit ‘I Had A Talk With My Man’ (which was based on James Cleveland’s ‘I Had A Talk With My God Last Night’). I first heard Collier years ago on a budget comp of Chess “girl singers”, and don’t remember being too jazzed about her. The fact that it was a ballad had something to with my sub-par evaluation. As I’ve stated here before, in the early days fo my soul fandom/collecting my ears were attuned largely to gritty, upbeat Southern soul shouting – which is why I probably replayed Etta James’s cuts on the same compilation several times while passing Collier over after a cursory investigation. Flash forward years later, portable in hand as I dig through boxes of 45’s, recognize the name Mitty Collier, and seeing the tempting title ‘Git Out’, toss the 45 on my “try-out” stack. Good thing I did too. Today’s entry is a cut that is as far as Collier ever got from her gospel roots (even if the flip side was another James Cleveland composition). Co-written by Cash McCall and produced by the mighty Monk Higgins is an ass-kicker of the first order, that like many a 1967 soul record treads mighty close to the border or Funkytown. The production on ‘Git Out’ is first rate and raw as hell. The drums are loud, the bass thick and juicy, the bluesy lead guitar twangy, and the vocals are powerful. Essentially a soulful declaration of independence, equal parts defiance and anger, ‘Git Out’ has a fantastic set of lyrics, in which the departing two-timer is described alternately as a “love prospector”, “stone Casanova”, “home wrecker”, “back door man” and “sweet game hunter” (??). Collier’s vocal is raw and Tina Turner-esque, sounding as if she was laying her vocal down with her foot planted firmly in the hind quarters of an actual cheating boyfriend (“15 takes....come ON baby?!?!”). In 1969 Collier moved from Chess to William Bell’s Atlanta-based Peachtree records (home also to Johnny Jones & The King Casuals among others) and recorded several 45s for that label. After the early 70’s she returned to gospel music, and is as we speak a minister in Chicago and continues to perform. I’m surprised that a track this powerful isn’t more popular. As far as I can tell it’s not available on a reissue of any kind. It shouldn’t be too hard to track down. My copy was a dollar bin find, but I’ve seen it listed in the $15 to $20 range, which is perfectly reasonable for a track of distinction such as this.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Rodge Martin - Lovin' Machine

This is all about footnotes. Not in the literal sense (I’ll drop a PS, or maybe even a PSS now and again, but you’ll never see an actual footnote here), but rather in the “historical footnote” sense. By that I mean a person or event who’s fame and fortune is interesting, yet relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The determination of “significance” is of course subjective, and may or may not be true depending on who you’re talking to. Today’s footnote is actually two or three, which added up may amount to something significant, but I’ll leave that up to the reader. Back in the day – some 20 years ago...cough...cough...wheeeze.. – I was heavily involved in the 60’s revival scene in NY/NJ (there are other names for the scene, but that seems to be the simplest). I’m speaking of the people involved in bands, record collecting and the Mod/mod* lifestyle who were grooving on the sound of 65/66 in 85/86. More than a mere nostalgia movement (can people be nostalgic for something they never experienced first-hand?), this phenomenon was composed of a wide variety of people who’s interests intersected with the sounds of 1960’s garage punk, British beat, psychedelic and soul. Spiraling out of that intersection were pockets of people who were mostly record collectors, folks that were in bands recreating the sounds, and people who were living a Mod/mod lifestyle and strove to recreate the fashions of that era (some folks were all three). It was truly an exciting time, and there were pockets of like minded individuals all over the world, dedicated to digging up and digging the obscure (and not so obscure) sounds of that era via compilation LPs, fanzines, new sounds in the old style and social interaction based in all of those elements. One of the great NY area bands of that time was the Secret Service. Though there were other great Mod bands in the area (especially the mighty Mod Fun, who worked more on the Pop Art side of things), The Secret Service brought back the sounds of UK R&B circa 1964. They were a shit-hot live band and had extremely good taste in covers. One of those covers was a tune called ‘Lovin’ Machine’. That in and of itself opens up another, smaller can of worms. Back in that very same day, there was amongst collectors/aficionados etc a brisk trade in bootleg video of 1960’s TV music performances. One of the videos making the rounds was of the Australian band the Easybeats (if they are unknown to you, I suggest picking up any greatest hits collection you can find by them. They were a great band) performing ‘Lovin’ Machine’. For most of us (ranging in age then from mid teens to mid 20’s), the lineage stopped there and we assumed that the Secret Service were covering an Easybeats tune (this is true in the respect that I believe that they – the band - thought it was an Easybeats song as well). Keeping in min that these were the olden days, i.e. pre-internet, the buck (as they say) stopped there. So...years later (circa 2003) I’m out at a record show – my days of pageboy haircuts and ill-fitting Beatle boots long gone – and I pull a record out of a box by a guy I’d never heard of before, i.e. Rodge Martin. It was the title that caught my eye, i.e. ‘Lovin’ Machine’. “Hmmmmm...”, I thought to myself. “I wonder.” I opened up my trusty Columbia GP3 portable record player, placed the 45 on the turntable, dropped the needle and.... “VOILA!” All was immediately revealed, i.e. there, spinning before me was the Ur ‘Lovin’ Machine’. This of course raised another question being, how did the Easybeats get their hands on an obscure soul 45 from Nashville, Tennessee? I don’t have the slightest idea. I’d like to know but I won’t belabor the point here. If any of you know, drop me a line. Anyway.... I got home, listened to Rodge Martin’s version a dozen or so times, and e-mailed some of my compadres from the old days to let them know what I’d found (shades of when we discovered that ‘I Feel Good’ which we’d seen as Mod Fun covering the Artwoods, was in fact a Benny Spellman 45). So...I start digging around for info on Rodge Martin and found little other than he’d recorded a few other 45s for different labels. Then, earlier this year I found out that Bear Family records in Germany were issuing DVDs of the 1966/67 syndicated TV show ‘The Beat’. A creation of Nashville DJ/entrepreneur Hoss Allen, the Beat was a truly amazing artifact, having featured performances (live and lip-synch) by a wide variety of soul, blues and R&B artists, filmed in color, many of whom were never captured on film anywhere else. The cost per DVD was initially prohibitive, until I went to the Bear Family web site and discovered that two volumes featured performances by Maurice and the Radiants (blogged here previously) and none other than Rodge Martin. When I received the volumes I ordered (from Dusty Groove, God bless them...) I was satisfied beyond my wildest dreams. In addition to the amazingly well preserved performances, there were (at least for me) a bunch of new discoveries, as well as comprehensive liner notes. It was in these notes that I read the short, sad story of Rodge Martin. When Hoss Allen put together ‘The Beat’, he built the house band around several Nashville based performers including Johnny Jones (of the King Casuals) and the Jimmy Church Revue. One member of said revue was Rodge Martin. Martin recorded his first 45, ‘Lovin’ Machine’ b/w ‘ When She Touches Me’ in 1966 for the Bragg label. Allen eventually became Martin’s manager. Martin recorded two more 45s (one for Dot and one for Newark) before succumbing to a heart attack at age 27 in 1967. There are several Martin performances on ‘The Beat’, and the best is a live version of ‘Lovin’ Machine’. My first impression of Rodge Martin harkens back to that old saw about Jackie Gleason having been very "light on his feet" (aka a good dancer) for a heavy guy. Martin, who had to be operating in the vicinity of 300 lbs was a mover and a stone groover, gyrating so fast and sweating so hard it looked like he might explode out of his suit. He appeared to be just barely keeping his breath through the number, which was absolute dynamite. His performance of the ballad ‘When She Touches Me’ showed he could work the slow stuff too. When I found out that Martin expired less than a year after this performance was filmed, I couldn’t help but be a little sad. Not only because he was a young guy, but because of all the great records he never got to make. I recommend highly that you grab at least one of the available volumes of ‘The Beat’. It’s a great slice of history and a footnote well worth exploring.
So there you have your footnote(s). For now, enjoy Rodge Martin. * I make a distinction here between Mod, i.e. the UK based style movement that started in the early 60’s, with stylish young Brits who were hooked on US soul and jazz, as well as sundry chemical accelerants, and “little m” mod, i.e. the mid-to-late 60’s style movement that included everyone from Mary Quant to Peter Max and all points in between. The two Mods are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are most definitely not the same thing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Dynamics - Misery

Hey Pete! There's some blokes from the USA
at the door saying you "borrowed" their song...
The chapter is entitled – Sampling/Schmampling or How a Generation of British Rockers Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Concept of Blatant Plagiarism... So...a couple of years back (before I entered the world of satellite radio) we were driving back from visiting my folks down Philly way, and had a small NJ college radio station (Trenton State I think) tuned in. As I was spinning the dial, I happened upon some smoking garage punk nugget or other and decided to bear with the somewhat weak signal in hopes that continued listening would yield more of the same (now that I think of it, it may even have been something as far out as ‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ by the Red Krayola, which would have been a real surprise...). But I digress.... So I continued listening, and the DJ was spinning a wide variety of 60’s sounds, garage, pop and soul, and I was digging it. Then, all of a sudden they slap on a record, that – now dig this – I had never heard before, yet strangely enough had definitely heard before. How’s that for a zen koan grasshopper??? The tune in question turned out to be ‘Misery’ by the Dynamics (that was the one I’d never heard). The one I heard (are you confused yet?) was ‘Zoot Suit’ by the High Numbers (aka The Who). Here’s how that whole convoluted scenario plays out. Back in 1963, a Detroit vocal group – the Dynamics – went into the studio and laid down ‘Misery’. The record is one of those great mixtures of R&B/rock/soul that was so prevalent in the early 60’s (and is so sorely forgotten today). Featuring a slightly menacing bass/drums/guitar backing, the lead vocal drops in as normal as can be - before suddenly changing to a falsetto and being joined by the other singers – at which point the drummer kicks things up a notch. After the second verse there’s a cool sax solo, and then the group comes back for more. The drumming on this track is outstanding. So....later that year (I’ll assume) after the Big Top label pressed up and released this treasure, some pimply kid in the UK gets his hands on a copy. He loves the song so much, he decides to write new lyrics and pass it off as his own. That kid....Pete Townshend. His band....the High Numbers (soon to become the Who). The “new” song....”Zoot Suit”. That’s what I meant when I said that I didn’t know the song, but did know it too. I’d heard ‘Zoot Suit’ plenty of times (some of my closest friends being card carrying, scooter coveting Mod types), but never in it’s raw, pre-stolen form, aka the original by the Dynamics. So, I’m riding along, minding my own beeswax, and I hear a VERY familiar tune, but in a whole new context. I was very excited by this discovery (my wife somewhat less so...). Naturally I set right out to find myself a copy of the Dynamics 45, discovering in the process that I was probably THE LAST person to figure this out. Adding insult to injury (or more injury...), the flip side of ‘Zoot Suit’ was a little ditty called ‘I’m The Face’, which just happened to be every bit as stolen as ‘Zoot Suit’, except this time the “source material” was “Got Love If You Want It” by the mighty Slim Harpo – proving once and for all that even if Pete was a thieving bastard, he had great taste in music. This combination of personality attributes seemed to be in some way inherent in the character of a certain age group in the UK, as the pattern of theft was continued on through the 60’s by countless groups, many of whom went on to fame and fortune. The modus operandi appears to have been, cop a tune from an obscure record by a (more often than not) black American artist, and “rework” it – reworking varying from rewriting the lyrics all the way to barely changing the song at all – collecting the copyright and all ensuing monies (be many of you used to think that Alan Price wrote ‘House of the Rising Sun”???). Now, as in all things, there are widely varying degrees of malfeasance. A group like the Beatles may have borrowed a riff here and there (see Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’) but they weren’t really stealing anything. There’s along standing tradition in music (popular and other) of carrying motifs from the past into a new era. The entire Bebop era is based on interpolations and quotes from “standards”. However.... There were people who, unsatisfied with a mere riff – lifted entire songs and “rewrote” them (i.e. crossing out the name of the original author and replacing it with ones own being a most liberal definition of “rewrote”). The worst offenders of the lot being (cough...cough...) Led Zeppelin, who thankfully were dragged into court by the mighty Willie Dixon and taken to task for their appropriation (though to be fair, Willie ought to have named the Small Faces as co-defendants*). Fortunately for the Who (and unfortunately for the Dynamics) the whole ‘Zoot Suit’ thing was a very early, pre-fame and fortune escapade and never resulted in legal action (that I know of...). Either way, dig the tune, send a hail fellow well met to the Dynamics and a Bronx cheer to the Who. * If you get the chance, check out the Small Faces tune ‘You Need Loving’ and witness the blueprint for Led Zeppelin laid before you. This tune was of course a “rewritten” version of Willie Dixon’s ‘You Need Love’ (made famous by Muddy Waters), which Robert “My Pants Is Too Tight” Plant and Jimmy “Uh...’zat You Satan” Page turned into ‘Whole Lotta Love’.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Thelma Houston - Jumpin' Jack Flash

Miss Thelma Houston
Way back in August (when the days were warm, and we were all younger...) I posted Merry Clayton’s smokin’ hot version of the Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’. At the time, I mentioned that I would eventually post what I consider to be the perfect companion piece to that recording, Thelma Houston’s cover of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. Today, in accordance with the Funky16Corners rule of week the last, i.e. more postings on our powerful funk and soul sisters, I bring you that very same song. Mention the name Thelma Houston to most folks, and the tune that comes to mind is her 1977 epic reworking of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It was not only one of the high points of the disco genre as a whole, but one of the great records of the 70’s, a masterpiece of dynamic invention, perfectly constructed around Miss Houston’s powerful voice. You may be a card-carrying member of the “disco sucks” army (I used to be), but I can’t imagine anyone not digging that record to some degree (though if you haven’t heard the HM&TBN original, it can be a revelation). Houston was born in Mississippi, and relocated to the West Coast as an adult. She started recording as a member of the Art Reynolds Singers. After leaving Reynolds she recorded a few 45s for Capitol in 1966 and 1967. She was heard by Marc Gordon (manager of the 5th Dimension) who got Houston a contract with Dunhill records. It was there that Houston made her connection with none other than Jimmy Webb. That name might not be all that familiar these days, but in 1969 Webb was as hot as songwriters get, having penned a multitude of chart hits for Glen Campbell and the 5th Dimension among others. Webb hits like ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Up Up and Away’ and ‘McArthur Park’ were showcases for his highly personal style which managed to bridge the gap between sophisticated, impressionist writing and top 40 success. While his chart successes were incredible, to really grasp the breadth of his vision you need to listen to the albums on which Webb was able to craft entire “song cycles”, like the 5th Dimensions’s 1967 LP ‘The Magic Garden’ (which was reportedly a favorite of the late Nick Drake). Another such LP was Thelma Houston’s 1969 LP ‘Sunshower’. Like ‘The Magic Garden’, ‘Sunshower’ was composed entirely of Jimmy Webb songs, with the exception of a single cover tune. The cover on ‘Sunshower’ was ‘Jumpin' Jack Flash’. The Stones original was a huge chart hit in the spring of 1968. It still stands today as one of the great rock records of the late 60’s, and a landmark in the Stones transition from their brief period of Flower Power into the favorite band of pool cue-wielding outlaw bikers. As incongruous as a cover of ‘Gimme Shelter’ seemed, that strangeness grows a few iterations with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, especially when considering the involvement of someone like Jimmy Webb. There are few songs in the Stones catalogue that are so thoroughly “theirs”; but I guess that the tune is so powerful, the riff so iconic, that the temptation to put ones own mark on it was too strong for many to resist. Aside from one by the mighty Leon Russell, I can’t think of another cover that works up enough steam and menace to stand proudly in the same room with the original – except for the Thelma Houston’s. Opening with chiming electric guitars - already a departure from the “wall of mud” in the original – drums and tambourine, Thelma drops in with guns blazing, scaling heights that Jagger and co. could barely imagine. As the song moves along, the listener is tempted to forget that Jimmy Webb is somewhere in the background twiddling the knobs – unless of course you’re listening closely. Ever so gradually a background chorus enters the proceedings, the guitar sound takes on a deeper, expansive tone, and then, just when you least expect it...the thunder quiets only to be replaced by a string quartet. The effect is jarring, and is just enough of a reminder that the arty, sometimes baroque touch of Webb is present, yet manages only to enhance the energy of the arrangement, ratcheting up the power where lesser mortals would have sent such a juggernaut plunging into the abyss. Thelma and the background singers come back in and she launches into the final verse with a scream that in another context might have been labeled “blood-curdling” but inside this framework remains powerfully soulful. I am flabbergasted that this record wasn’t a hit – somewhere. As far as I can tell, it managed to scrape the bottom of the Top 50 in New Haven, CT, and nowhere else. Houston left Dunhill in 1970 and signed to the Motown subsidiary Mowest in 1972. She would record for the Motown organization through the 70’s, and RCA, MCA and Reprise in the 80’s. She still performs today. Interestingly enough, her ‘Greatest Hits’ LPs both reach back to include ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pass Out The Hatchets Baby!!!

Bo & Fess !!
Greetings! 364 days ago (exactamundo) I (and probably 1,000 other folks) decided to enter the “blogosphere” (how stupid does that word sound now???). As I’ve said here before, time constraints were making it difficult to do full updates on the Funky16Corners webzine, so I decided to try out blogging. It was a way to keep writing about records, in a smaller, bite-sized – some bites being bigger than others – form. In the beginning, I was writing about a wide variety of styles. Early posts included personal favorites like Bob Dorough, Scott Walker and the 13th Floor Elevators. Soon enough, though, the space that my head was in (generally just above my neck) found it’s way back to my first and most undying musical love, soul music. If you were ever a reader of the web zine, or a regular here at the blog, you’ll be familiar with the fact that my taste in “soul” music is fairly wide reaching. Record styles covered here have included blues, R&B, soul and funk, all in one way or another rotating around a similar soulful axis (and time period). Whether or not you agree with my “conception” of soul music – and some folks don’t – I like to think that the sounds that are posted here have always been (and will continue to be) good music, and hopefully something you haven’t heard before. The concept of the MP3 blog is a fairly flexible one. In my little world, the music has always included a generous helping of history (and commentary). This is mainly because that’s just the way my mind works. Whenever I pick up a record, and read the info on the label, I’m always looking for the connections. Of course what matters most (always) is the immediate, visceral impact of the music itself. But while that sinks in, I’m always wondering where the artist came from, and in what context they created their music. Rod Stewart – back in the day before he was a sad, old, naugahyde recycler of trends – once sang ‘Every Picture Tells A Story”, and what applied to pictures, also applies to records. Every single 45 (‘zat redundant?) carries with it some element of the artists history, whether it was a pivotal moment in their particular trajectory, a basic building block of their sound, or even just a small example of a particular label’s or regional scene’s greatness. Even the smallest fragment of musical history is connected to the bigger picture in some way, and it’s those connections that I try to find, and present here. Whether or not I am ultimately successful is up to you, the readers. Over the last year I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people – some just a thank you or pat on the back (and that’s always cool), and some including new information on the topic at hand (or corrections, also always welcome). Either way, it reflects in some small way (and this is something that is regularly overstated by fans of the internets) the existence of a community of like minds, all of whom dig great music. That’s the coolest thing of all. In honor of the conclusion of our first year, and the beginning of the second, I’ve decided to post up two of my all-time favorite records, both brilliant two-parters, in their complete form. The first, is actually my favorite record of all time. That position, once help by Them’s ‘Gloria’ (now in the #2 spot) is currently occupied by ‘Pass The Hatchet’ by Roger & The Gypsies. The very first record released on the Seven B label was a collaboration between a group called Earl Stanley & The Stereos and none other than Eddie Bo (though the lore seems to indicate that Bo was brought in after the fact to work his magic). ‘Pass The Hatchet’ was my very first ‘Eddie Bo Jam of the Month’ over at the web zine, and I’d like to reprint what I wrote back in 2001:
“Oooooohhhhhh MAMA!!! This is one of those records that when the needle hits the wax, if you ain’t dancin’ you’re DEAD! While Roger & The Gypsies were a real group (i.e. not a name dropped on an Eddie Bo studio creation) the "singing" here is Eddie, and the production SCREAMS Eddie Bo. Opening with a super-solid bass drum beat - that feels like butts swinging in time, hands clapping and feet stomping - and Eddie’s order to "Pass out the hatchets baby!" this is a party starter of the first order. I cannot over-emphasize the power of the drums on this record. Though the beat is simple (compared to some of the mind-bending beats coming out of N.O.) - nobody….I mean NOBODY, recorded drums like New Orleans producers. They managed to capture a lot of the natural power of live drums on his records without sacrificing any of the clarity. The snares crack, the cymbals sizzle and the kick drum is DEEP. The bass comes in, followed by dual guitar lines. The first keeping a sub-beat (not unlike the multi-layered guitars in the J.B.’s) and the second soloing on top. The whole time Eddie keeps popping up with interjections of ‘Chop It!’, ‘Timber!’ and funky grunts (there is an ‘UNHH!’ on this record that manages to carry in it the weight of ALL recorded funk). The song breaks in the middle (just long enough for the dancers to catch their breath) and restarts: ‘The Bigger they come, the harder the fall! Let me chop it…let me chop it…LET ME CHOP IT!" and the drums begin again with renewed force, followed by the sinister rattle of maraccas. When it stops, it stops without a fade, leaving the dancers with their heads spinning. Powerful stuff.”
I hope that goes some distance in explaining why I think it’s such an amazing record, but ultimately, without clicking on the link above and listening to the song, you can never really know. The second record is another certified New Orleans classic, ‘Big Chief Pts 1&2’ by Professor Longhair. I decided to include both parts, because you rarely get to hear Part 2, but also because including it illustrates how the record was really collaboration between Fess and Earl King (who’s work on Watch Records had to remain a secret due to his contract with Motown). That’s Earl singing and whistling on Part Two. One of the highlights of the recent New Orleans benefit at Madison Square Garden, was an exciting rendition of ‘Big Chief’ by Cyril Neville fronting a band led by Allen Toussaint. It was an explosive performance, indicative of the power of the song itself, and it’s position as an anthem of sorts in the Crescent City. It was a thing of beauty. You could almost feel that band lifting New Orleans out of the flood waters and shaking it dry. Anyway...I hope you dig these mighty tunes, and that you’ll stick around for the next year, or two, or until these things get plugged directly into your head via microchip, and then I hope you’ll buy the chip (or borrow your friends...).
Once again, these are BIG files and might take a little time to download...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Marlena Shaw - Woman of the Ghetto

Miss Marlena Shaw
From the “time flies while you’re having fun” department, the Funky16Corners blog is rapidly approaching its one year anniversary. As I was going back through the records I’d posted in the last year, I noticed that there was a paucity of female recording artists represented, and perhaps the ladies weren’t getting their propers. This is certainly not due to any lack of female singers/musicians in the Funky16Corners crates, so I have to attribute it to oversight, and do what I can to rectify it, posthaste. As a result, I pulled some favorite Sister funk and soul 45s out, and will feature them over the next few weeks (and do what I can to make sure that more of them get posted from now on). The first of these is a record that I’ve wanted for a long time and only scored a copy of very recently. Marlena Shaw is a name that should be familiar to beat diggers due to the use of the drum break from her version of ‘California Soul’ on the DJ Shadow/Cut Chemist ‘Brainfreeze’ mix. As a result Ms. Shaw’s funkier 45s became something of a hot commodity and started to change hands in an elevated price range (especially for ‘California Soul’ which occasionally breaks the $100 mark). While I dig ‘California Soul’, and wish I had my own copy on 45, the Marlena track I dig the most, and which I bring to the table today is the mighty ‘Woman of the Ghetto’. Readers of the Funky16Corners web zine (and occasional posts here) will know that I am a huge fan of Richard Evans. Evans was the composer/producer/arranger behind the Soulful Strings, as well as any number of amazing records for the Cadet label. He was a master of creating a sophisticated sound and then mixing in unusual instrumental touches. In his years at Cadet he worked his magic with the aforementioned Soulful Strings, as well as Terry Callier, Odell Brown & The Organizers, Dorothy Ashby and of course, Marlena Shaw. Shaw started her career singing with small jazz groups in bars and supper clubs in the Northeast. She was signed to Cadet records in 1966, and had her first hit in 1967 with a vocal version of Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinul’s ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ (also done vocally by fellow Chicagoans the Buckinghams who had a hit with a similar version a few months after Shaw). Though there are touches of soul on her first Cadet LP ‘Out of Different Bags’, Shaw was mainly a jazz vocalist with a sophisticated pop edge. Her second LP, 1969's ‘The Spice of Life’ still featured a few standards, but Shaw and Evans started to take things in new directions. The arrangements by Evans take traditional orchestrations and flavor them with heavier guitar and drums as well as “world music” touches like kalimba. ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ is not only a departure for Shaw musically, but marked a move into “topical” material. Co-written by Shaw, Evans and Bobby Lee Miller, the lyrics are a powerful social/political statement, and unusual in her Cadet catalogue. She lays down a soulful vocal with bits of improvisational spice. The tune has a slightly menacing edge, with some cool, echoey background vocals. The arrangement builds slowly, with a pulsing bass line and new sounds being added as the record (which clocks in at over five minutes) moves along. At one point Evans seems to run the kalimba through a wah-wah pedal which makes for an interesting effect. The recording stands out as an epic of sorts, and is one of the finest that Evans ever had a hand in (and that’s really saying something). Though the record didn’t chart, it was influential, garnering cover versions in the US by Doris Duke and in Jamaica by Marcia Griffiths, Hortense Ellis and Phyllis Dillon (Shaw’s version appears to have been released in Jamaica). ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ has been sampled a few times as well by both Lyrics Born and No ID. After leaving Cadet, Shaw toured for four years as a vocalist for the Count Basie Orchestra, after which she became the first female vocalist signed to the Blue Note label. In the years since then she has continued to record for Columbia, Verve and Concord Jazz, and still performs today.
WARNING: This is a large file and may take some time to download..
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