Boogie Your Sneakers Away (26th March 1972)

This week, on a distant, dusty website rather drily titled “World Radio History”, packed with media & music ephemera only of interest to obsessives such as myself, I was able to access the Billboard magazine chart archive that provided the initial impetus for these weekly posts from 50 years ago. This was a time before the B’board hotshots attempted to put their hand in my wallet & fortunately the Cash Box archive gave up first the contemporary R&B chart & this year those lower reaches, higher numbers (101-150) from the album listing. Billboard’s ranking goes all the way up to 200, that’s 50 better right? Nah, there’s ample choice at Cash Box & they helped me out when I needed it, the greed heads at Billboard can stick their bigger album chart right up their paywall!

My first selection is a Greatest Hits collection, well it was around my house, not so much if you lived between 3,500 & 5,500 miles to the West of here. Of the 14 tracks on “Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy”, a collection of early 45s by the Who, just four of them had reached the US Top 40 with only “I Can See For Miles” making the Top 10. By 1972 the Who were “the Greatest Show On Earth” (L.A.Times), show-stopping at festivals, Rolling Stones’ TV special-stealing, successive platinum albums with a Rock opera about a deaf, dumb & blind kid, a wall-shaking Live record & “Who’s Next”, a proper grown-up Rock classic. Way back in 1965, Pete & Keith still in their teens, John & Roger just 20, fashioned their Maximum R&B energy into the hit “I Can’t Explain”, ending the year with “My Generation”, recorded one day in October, released two weeks later, Townshend’s bold anthem about the young idea, lyrics we believed in, Daltrey stuttering over them like the pilled-up Mods in their audience. I’m aware that the USA was not yet swinging like a pendulum do but “My Generation”, a statement record that moved the music forward only made it to #74 in the US Hot 100. Why don’t you all fu-fu-fade away!

Encouraged by Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp, their West London Situationist managers, the Who gained popularity & notoriety while the talent & ambition of Pete Townshend, chasing the next hit single, turned Pop into Pop Art. 1966 produced “Substitute”, “I’m A Boy” & “Happy Jack”, all great records. The group were kept busy in the UK & Europe, I guess the US record company, Decca, already mistaking the feedback on tracks for faulty master tapes, had problems persuading radio stations to air songs about gender confusion & a man who slept on a beach. Unsurprisingly the perfect “Pictures Of Lily”, concerning the comfort of masturbation, didn’t catch on either. Pete was looking to extend his range & after “I Can See For Miles”, from “The Who Sell Out”, a dazzling record, it was at the expense of the self-contained three minute story single. “Magic Bus”, here in its full, over four minutes, length & the idiosyncratic, marvellous “Dogs” (not included) were less focused. His vision was fully realised with “Tommy”, “Pinball Wizard” just so. Rock & Roll was moving on up & the Who were in the vanguard. “Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy” is an essential compilation from exciting times when, with a rush & an amphetamine-fuelled push, Townshend, Entwistle & the indefatigable Moon were developing as a great power trio, Pete’s lyrics for Daltrey pointing out some stuff to the youth that no-one else was. The kids were alright. (oh yeah, MBB&B was #120 on this week’s chart.

Steve Miller arrived in San Francisco in 1966 just as that Haight-Ashbury scene & all the bands connected with it was about to blow up, attracting a bunch of men with unsigned record contracts to the Bay Area. Steve had been around, in Milwaukee guitar virtuoso Les Paul was his godfather, in Dallas artists such as T Bone Walker & Charles Mingus were guests at his family home. In Chicago he found kindred spirits, young white men who wanted to play the Blues, he formed a band, jammed with Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf. The Steve Miller Blues Band signed with Capitol Records, a label they remained with for 20 years, & were sent to Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, where the Beatles & the Stones recorded & young engineer Glyn Johns was waiting to debut as a producer. “Children of the Future” (1968) didn’t garner great sales but its mix of Blues with a touch a psychedelia, gentler Folk-Rock & yeah, a sprinkling of Prog was built to last & following records did very well thank you. Make it nice in here, all have a smoke, put on “Sailor” or “Brave New World”, songs like “Quicksilver Girl” & “Seasons” keeping it mellow, the Blues braggadocio of “Gangster of Love” & “Space Cowboy” amusing & a most pleasant evening was had.

“Recall the Beginning…A Journey To Eden”, a new entry at #136, was Steve Miller Band’s seventh album. The line-up had changed, recruiting Ben Sidran to replace Boz Scaggs, both talented friends from college, was a shrewd move. “Rock Love” (1971), live tracks with an unseasoned group & studio leftovers, had been released while Steve was recovering from a motorcycle accident & was badly received. “Recall…” deserved more attention & closer listening, the Blues-based tracks have familiar structures but are all “written by Steve Miller”, the atmospheric side two is that thing the band did, the playing immaculate, Steve is the guitarist of choice of many folks. “Fandango” was released as a 45 though the group had never had a hit single, well not by 1972. “The Joker” (1973) had a lightness of touch & humour that had not always been apparent. It also had a killer title track that brought the Steve Miller Band platinum albums & Top 10 singles. These well crafted, self-produced, catchy Pop-Rock hits sounded great on the radio & I by no means begrudge Steve Miller’s ability to sell millions of records. If I need a shot of SMB it’s the foghorns & stoned groove of “Songs For Our Ancestors”, the textured space jams of “Sailor” & those early records that find their way on to my turntable.

Canned Heat were formed by a couple of Blues aficionados, Bob “Bear” Hite, who had an extensive collection of 78 rpm records & Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson who before he moved to California had worked with Mississippi John Hurt then taught Son House the songs he had forgotten when the two Country Blues legends were re-discovered. Joined by guitarist Henry “Sunflower” Vestine, bass player Larry “Mole” Taylor & eventually drummer Fito de la Parra what began as a jug band proved to be most effective when they plugged their instruments into the mains. A debut album of energetic cover versions was followed by original songs on “Boogie With Canned Heat” (1968). Boogie, a John Lee Hooker-inspired shuffle was what the band did, with Hite, a big man, as singer & hype man the others gelled, jammed & brought the Heat. The real jewel was Alan Wilson, a talented harmonica & slide guitar player whose high-pitched croon (based on Skip James) reworked first “On The Road Again” then “Going Up The Country” into distinctive hit records, songs that are still instantly recognisable & welcome. With hit records & an onstage presence Canned Heat were, by the end of the decade, a very popular group but Alan was uncomfortable with the Rock & Roll lifestyle, his depression, which led to hospitalisation, exacerbated by his use of barbiturates to help him sleep. In September 1970 he was found dead in his sleeping bag behind Hite’s house. Alan must have been pleased with “Hooker & Heat”, a double album recorded with one of his idols & released after his death. It was a record that got a lot of play round at our house, our introduction to John Lee Hooker, one of the greatest Blues men.

Canned Heat were kept busy, “Historical Figures & Ancient Heads”, #108 on the chart, was their seventh studio record. Vestine had left & returned, there was a new bass player & guitarist Joel Scott Hill, a guy I saw later in a rehashed Flying Burrito Brothers, had replaced Wilson. It’s not Heat’s best record, some ordinary Rock & Roll, too many “life on the road” songs. There should have been more tracks like “Utah”, credited to the whole group, where they hit a Blues groove & play it like they mean it. The first time I saw Canned Heat, the sun rose at a Summer festival & they played like the group who succeeded at Monterey & Woodstock. The third time, just a few years later, it was a pretty standard set of bar-room Boogie. Apart from providing two of the group’s three hit 45s the Blind Owl was the compass of Canned Heat, keeping them on the course that these Blues enthusiasts had set to bring the music to the US. Hite died in 1981 when the heroin was too strong & the cocaine he was given didn’t help. Fito abides & Canned Heat are still around. If I need a little Heat I may not reach for the 40 minute long “Refried Boogie” but I’m happy to hear “Fried Hockey Boogie” (11 minutes) & their often experimental early work.

Back On The Stax (Soul 19th March 1972)

The travails of the great Memphis Soul label Stax in the late 1960s could have been enough to have brought an end to a run of success that had begun in 1961. The death of Otis Redding, its most consistent & successful hit maker, in December 1967 was a great shock & sadness for the Stax community already finding themselves at the wrong end of a deal with distributors Atlantic who, as part of a sale to Warner Brothers, retained the rights to all recordings made between 1960 & 1967. Johnnie Taylor’s best selling single “Who’s Making Love” kept the label afloat in the following year then a risky, imaginative strategy to create an instant catalogue saw the release of 27 albums in mid-69. One of these sold millions & ensured the label continued as a force in Soul music. This week 50 years ago there were four Stax 45s on the Cash Box R&B Top 60 & that artist was responsible for two of them.

“Hot Buttered Soul” by Isaac Hayes is a ground-breaking landmark album, just four tracks, lush, stately, insistent orchestration epically stretching Bacharach & David’s “Walk On By” to 12 minutes, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” to 18. From valued studio hand producing & writing along with partner David Porter, the great Sam & Dave hits, sitting in on sessions when Booker T Jones was away at his musical studies, Isaac was now a leading man, “Black Moses”. His monumental soundtrack to “Shaft” (1971) reaching #1 in the US album chart, staying at that position for three months on the R&B listing & the natural headliner for the upcoming “Wattstax”, a showcase for the label in Los Angeles which would attract 112,000 spectators in August 1972. “If talking is the only way – Rap On!”, “Do Your Thing”, a radio version cut down to less than four minutes from the 19 on “Shaft” (there’s a 33 minute version out there) rose seven places to #5 on the R&B chart for 19th of March 1972 but you know that one don’t you so here’s one that was in the charts too.

Isaac Hayes had it together, his groove so creative, confident, effective, prolific & popular. Together with arranger down from Detroit Johnny Allen & his Movement, the group of musicians now working in the Stax studio, a new pulsebeat was found in melodic songs from the Bacharach & David & Soul catalogues while covers of the Beatles & Kris Kristofferson were impressively & successfully “Hayes-ified”. Ike’s latest treatment was possibly a surprise as the original was still on the chart at #12. “Let’s Stay Together” was a new entry on the R&B chart at #41 this week, a mega hit for Al Green from Willie Mitchell’s Hi Studios in Memphis, less than a mile away from the Stax operation at 926 East McLemore Avenue. It may have been a quickly put together & recorded instrumental but its leisurely jazzy course is very, very cool. Paired with the rich “Soulsville”, a vocal track from “Shaft”, that is one hot 7″ vinyl disc. Isaac Hayes changed how Soul music was viewed & consumed, “Shaft” had been the first double album released by an R&B artist. Such renown & success was difficult to maintain but there were gold records to follow from a man deservedly held in the highest regard.

I

n order to make the deadline for their new catalogue Stax needed to recruit new talent & producer Don Davis quickly established his credentials with his work on the “Who’s Making Love” hit. Don produced albums with Johnnie Taylor, Darrell Banks & Carla Thomas for the expansion, he had been working in Detroit for small labels like Ric-Tic & Golden World, both now bought out by the Tamla Motown giant. It was his contacts in the Motor City that led him to bring former Golden World alumni the Dramatics along with young songwriter Tony Hester into the Stax orbit, allowing them a creative freedom that they would never have received from Motown. The Sensations became the Dramatics in 1965 experiencing line-up changes particularly after an involvement in the 1967 Algiers Motel tragedy when, after a night of rioting in Detroit, three young men including the group’s 18 year old valet, were killed by police. By 1971 the Dramatics were original members Ron Banks, Larry Demps, Elbert Wilkins with William Howard & Willie Ford – the Classic Five.

The group, produced by Hester, supervised by Davis, certainly brought a touch of Motown to Memphis, with five capable lead voices the Dramatics could be compared to the Temptations. Their debut album “What You See Is What You Get” (1971) yielded a title track that became a breakout crossover hit followed by the theatrical, sound-effect laden “In The Rain” (seen here on “Soul Train”), an even bigger success’ another big mover on this week’s chart from 18 to #7. The flourishes of Hester/Davis & arranger Johnnie Allen were less predominant than those of Norman Whitfield, a romantic sweetness was a tip to the new group sound from Philadelphia & the Dramatics had their own thing going on. Further personnel disruption meant that there was no group photo on the second album, again completely written by Hester, & the following one was released as Ron Banks & the Dramatics to differentiate them from a breakaway unit. It is more than ironic that two standout tracks on “A Dramatic Experience” (1973) were the eerie “The Devil Is Dope” & “Beware of the Man (With the Candy in His Hand)” as Tony Hester’s increasingly debilitating drug habit led to less involvement with the group & his death by gunshot at just 34 years of age in 1980. The Dramatics abided, their records had a consistent quality throughout the next decade while other vocal groups faltered. They certainly deserve to be considered in the top rank of 1970s US vocal combos.

Little Milton (James Milton Campbell Jr) had a 20 year long recording career when he found himself at Stax Records though he had been to Memphis before. Raised in Greenville, Mississippi, his first solo tracks were recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, backed by Ike Turner’s band. On moving to St Louis he & a partner started their own label Bobbin which did well enough to get a deal with the famous Chess organisation in Chicago. It was on Chess’ R&B subsidiary, Checker, that, in 1965, “We’re Gonna Make It”, lovely bit of Blues-Soul positivity, became an R&B #1, Top 30 on the Hot 100. Milton was versatile & popular, there were to be six more R&B Top 20 records (“Grits Ain’t Groceries”, “If Walls Could Talk”), four albums, in the decade but the death of founder Leonard Chess left his label in disarray & Stax were pleased to provide a home for an already established artist.

“That’s What Love Will Make You Do”, Little Milton’s second Stax 45 is at #33 on this week’s chart. The label had previous with Blues players when Albert King was matched with Booker T & the M.G.’s & the Memphis Horns on influential records. This time around Milton’s strong vocal attack was complimented by the production of Don Davis (busy guy!), employing those new studio guys including Lester Snell on keys, drummer Willie Hall & the distinctive punchy horns. There were to be some following 45s before the”Waiting For Little Milton” came around in 1973, a self-produced selection of his own songs & Blues classics that absolutely rocks. “Grits Ain’t Groceries”, a six track live set, recorded in 1972, not released until 1984, makes that night at the Summit Club L.A. seem like the place to be. In 1975 a poor distribution deal with CBS & fewer hits as Disco carried the swing led to Stax declaring bankruptcy. There was, of course a long queue of men with contracts outside Isaac Hayes’ yard, the Dramatics remained under the mentorship of Don Davis while Little Milton recorded more sporadically before, in the 1980s finding himself back in Mississippi with the Malaco label until his passing in 2005. A Bluesman, a Soul man, a showman, a survivor.

Straight To Your Heart (5th March 1972)

I had a pretty good 1972, I left home aged 18 in late 71, I was crazy in love, new friends, new experiences, all done to a great soundtrack. Like the Wild Angels I wanna be free, free to do what I wanna do, I wanna get loaded, I wanna have a good time & that’s what I’m gonna do. Please excuse me while I rave on about some of the records I found in the lower reaches of the Cash Box album chart (#101 – #150) of the 5th of March 1972. All three selections were favourites at the time of release, have become even more so over the years & who would have thought that I would still be listening in 50 years time? Not me, thinking wasn’t my strong suit back in 1972 – maybe it still isn’t.

First up it’s a debut by a new singer/songwriter, all the rage in the early 1970s. On its entry into the chart, the record was listed as “Saturate Before Using”, now two weeks later, the “Jackson Browne” album stood at #137. Jackson’s name had first come around in 1967 when he had played on & provided three songs for his girlfriend Nico’s, off of the Velvet Underground, record “Chelsea Girl”. The introspective “These Days” highlighted a maturity beyond his teenage years. Relocated to Los Angeles, signed to the new Asylum label, a radio broadcast from the time of his album’s release places him as a sensitive young man with a guitar playing songs from his first two albums that nobody knew, rather diffidently mumbling about taking too much cocaine after last night’s Carnegie Hall concert with Joni Mitchell. “Jackson Browne” is a more confident affair, the songs embellished with simple instrumentation to introduce an articulate, developing talent.

Right, “Saturate Before Using” (sorry, can’t help myself) in one paragraph without listing all the songs & avoiding the word “maturity” again. “Doctor My Eyes” took Jackson into the US singles Top 10 (similarly in the UK for the Jackson 5), the opening “Jamaica Say You Will” & my selection here “Rock Me On The Water” equally accessible. Some tracks take a little longer to differentiate him from all the other heartfelt Laurel Canyon troubadours but it’s worth it, the harmonies of David Crosby & Graham Nash on “From Silver Lake” still weaken my knees. I’ve stolen the phrase “conditional optimism” about Jackson Browne, whether personal, romance or the death of a friend, or political he stands “at the edge of my embattled illusions” & the later “resignation that living brings”. Not yet “caught between the longing for Love & the struggle for the legal tender”, imagining no possessions was not working out for my generation, we were having to figure just how much Peace & Love would sustain us in the 1970s. Jackson Browne articulated this quandary more lucidly than anyone around. On “For Everyman” (1973) he got himself a band, particularly guitarist David Lindley, who complemented this perspicacity & there were great records to follow, I really did enjoy last year’s “Downhill From Everywhere”, at 73 years old he & we are “Still Looking For Something“. I regularly reach for “Saturate Before Using” (now, I believe, the official title), a classic debut from an artist who, like many of us, was trying to work it out for the best.

I first heard Ry Cooder’s slide guitar on Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band’s game-changing “Safe As Milk” record in 1967 then backing Mick Jagger on “Memo From Turner” for the film “Performance” & adding mandolin to “Love In Vain” on the Stones’ “Let It Bleed”. His first solo record, released in 1970, illustrated his affection for Country Blues with the inclusion of songs by Sleepy John Estes, Leadbelly & Blind Blake among others along with a number of tunes from the Depression era. The lament “he could afford but “One Meat Ball””, Woody Guthrie’s “if you ain’t got that “Do Re Mi”” & the sublime “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live” are respectfully & exuberantly interpreted. This was my introduction to Blind Alfred Reed, the author of “How Can…”, an itinerant musician who played at fairs, churches & on the street, just 21 tracks recorded between 1927-29, his homilies & social commentaries presented with guile & humour. There was to be more musical archaeology on “Into The Purple Valley”, #139 on this week’s album chart.

The tradition of Depression era polemics continued on “…Purple Valley” with “How Can You Keep On Moving (Unless You Migrate Too)”, “Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All” & Woody Guthrie’s militant “Vigilante Man”. The 1936 calypso “FDR In Trinidad” & an instrumental from Bahamian Joseph Spence introduced a Caribbean rhythmic seasoning & there was a reach back to the 1920s with “Billy The Kid” & “Denomination Blues”, a commentary on religious sectarianism (“Well, the Primitive Baptists they believe that you can’t go to heaven ‘less you wash your feet, & that’s all”) by Washington Phillips, a preacher-singer who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, expressed succinctly & melodically, playing a homemade instrument that involved some welding – amazing! A couple of 1950s R&B hits were in the mix too, a little more contemporary, adding variety & texture to the collection. It’s “Teardrops Will Fall”, a 1958 hit for Dickie Doo & the Don’ts, that makes the cut from a great record. Ry Cooder didn’t want to be a teacher, a curator of the American music museum, neither did he want to be a guitar hero but he was both. His excavations uncovered songs & artists that deserved our consideration, his impeccable, fluid guitar & mandolin reflecting his class, energy & delight to be playing them. There would be more, much more to come from Ry Cooder, in 1972 “Into The Purple Valley” was a little beauty.

In the summer of 1970 I was just 17, you know what I mean, with a job on a construction site providing the means to hit the local record shop on payday to buy discs that were neither on sale nor budget-priced, “Moondance” by Van Morrison was the first of these purchases. I know, I got good taste. After leaving his group Them Van’s move to the US was ill-judged, his producer/label boss Bert Berns was more interested in chasing the singles success of “Brown Eyed Girl” than recording an album. It took time & hardship to extricate himself that contract, at Warner Brothers there was freedom to make the hypnotic, mystical “Astral Weeks” (1968), a record that I knew but had not yet grokked the way I was able to “Moondance”, both critically acclaimed & along with “His Street Band & Choir” (1970) establishing Van’s position as a unique, passionate even visionary artist. His reputation for irascibility seems to be well-earned, his mutterings during the pandemic have placed him beyond the pale for many but in 1972, relocating with his wife & baby daughter from Woodstock N.Y. to rural California, he was in a good place.

“Tupelo Honey”,#117 on the list, opens with “Wild Night” a surge of excitement, one of the short, sharp R&B blasts that sounded great on the radio, sold well (US Top 30) & alerted folk to a new Van Morrison LP. Back in Woodstock Van had planned a Country & Western record but the cover versions were ditched in favour of his own songs & a new band hastily assembled. “Old Old Woodstock”, “Starting A New Life”, a key track & “You’re My Woman” are testaments to domestic happiness yet never cosy. As he sings on the latter Van’s concerns are what is “really, really real”, an expression of his feelings about his wife & the birth of their daughter as pure as he is able to capture. There is a Country inflection throughout the record though Van was never going to neglect his R&B roots, it’s how his songs went, the band, playing live in the studio do a great job, particularly Ronnie Montrose on guitar & Mark Jordan’s keyboards. The singer was always developing his voice as an instrument & he always knew how a horn section worked. It was going to be the ebullient, exciting “Moonshine Whiskey” featured because it always makes me happy however the title track is a classic, something you knew on first hearing it. This performance from a highly auspicious set live in Montreux in 1980, a stellar horn section of Mark Isham & Pee Wee Ellis, a singer confident enough in his talent to see where it led him, is popular music elevated to Art, a rare thing, a great thing.

Crikey, not all of these album posts will be as effusive – probably. I thought that I’d be on to the a “Best Of…” selection by now. This week’s chart also included “Who’s Next”, “Muswell Hillbillies” & Jim Capaldi’s “Oh How We Danced” so I may be rattling on too much next time.