The Sound Of The Funky Drummer (Soul September 1969)

September 1969 began with Aretha Franklin at the top of the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations (what?). Lady Soul achieved her 7th R&B #1, there were to be 10 more, with “Share Your Love With Me”, a song from way back in 1963. I have the original of this song by Bobby “Blue” Bland, fine versions by the Band & Van Morrison but I must admit that  Aretha, the Sweet Inspirations, the Muscle Shoals band & King Curtis’ horns make a very classy combination. The Queen’s successor enjoyed a 7 week stay at the top of the chart, it’s one that you know but one that will wait until next month.

 

 

New Orleans’ groovy gumbo of multicultural rhythms had been moving on up the Mississippi, influencing American music since, possibly before, the turn of the century when cornet player Buddy Bolden flavoured Ragtime with dashes of improvisation, Blues & Gospel & invented Jazz. The second line tradition had its beginnings at the city’s funeral processions but its sinuous, upbeat  rhythms were by no means sombre. In 1969 The Meters released their debut LP & New Orleans Funk, particularly the 45 “Cissy Strut”, was on the national charts. The door was opened for other artists who played that good stuff.

 

Image result for eddie bo posterFirst to step through was Eddie Bo whose “Hook & Sling (Parts 1 & 2)” was at #13 mid-month & had been as high as #6. Eddie had been recording for 15 years, lots of singles, no albums. If you were in a club on Bourbon Street in the early 1960’s & Eddie Bo was playing his brand of piano R&B then it would be a perfect evening (I’m not sure how to dance “the Popeye” but I can dream!). His talents as a musician, composer, arranger & producer were much in demand. He had regional hits but never broke out into national recognition. At the small Seven B label he sang on & rearranged a track by Earl Stanley & the Stereos released in 1966 as “Pass the Hatchet” by Roger & the Gypsies, an iconic New Orleans record. “Hook & Sling” is in that category too.

 

Image result for eddie boBy the late 1960’s Eddie had got the Funk & his drummer of choice was James Black, a Louisiana man who had left to make the Jazz scene in New York before returning to R&B sessions. In 1969 James was on it, his percussive pyrotechnics on Betty Harris’ “There’s a Break in the Road” were spectacular & on “Hook & Sling” were equally so. Along with Zigaboo Modeliste, drummer for the Meters, James Black was a key figure in creating the city’s distinctive Funk sound. On the back of the hit Eddie made more 45’s & started his own label, Bo-Sound. He finally released an album in 1977 & their were others, new tunes & compilations until 2016. There are many music legends from way down yonder in New Orleans & Eddie Bo’s contribution was significant enough for him to be included among them. I’m just going to put “Check Your Bucket” right here, I know of no better tonic to be taken with the day’s first cup of coffee.

 

 

Image result for dyke and the blazers let a woman be a womanOver on the West Coast Sly Stone was making music that was not only innovative & influential but also selling by the lorry load. It would be a year or so before other groups from Los Angeles would have a major impact on the R&B chart but in 1969 there were signs that LA was coming up. There were two records made in the city on the chart. Two different groups, the same musicians involved with both. Dyke & the Blazers’ “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man” had stalled at #44 but it was too good a record to miss out & did reach a higher position.

 

Related image “Dyke” Christian, originally from Buffalo, based in Phoenix, Arizona had scored a Top 20 R&B position in 1967 with his group’s single “Funky Broadway”. Wilson Pickett made it into an even bigger hit & Dyke, struggling to keep his band together, began to record in Los Angeles. His raw, gutbucket Funk, a variation on James Brown’s template, scored a hit with “We Got More Soul” & “Let a Woman…” was more of the same. Dyke’s studio crew were gaining a reputation of their own, the two hits tailor-made from long, improvised jams. The drum breaks, played by the outstanding James Gadson, ensured a long life for the much sampled “Let a Woman…”. There were smaller hits to follow but unfortunately Dyke was fatally shot outside a club in Phoenix in 1971. By this time his talented backing band were working on their own thing.

 

 

Image result for watts 103rd street rhythm bandThrough the 1960’s the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band had a complicated narrative. Led by singer Charles Wright for the 1968 LP “Together” the group was on to its fourth incarnation. This more stable unit displayed its wide range of talents on the album, Jazz-tinged ballads, excerpts from the set of the best live Soul covers band in California, the primal Funk of “Do Your Thing”, a breakthrough hit employed so effectively in “Boogie Nights” when William H Macy is doing his thing. The insistent,  very groovy “Till You Get Enough”, #38 in the chart, was the lead single from “In the Jungle Babe”, a more fully realised set, the covers receiving an individual take, from a more confident combo. For the next couple of years the music made on 103rd Street was some of the best around.

 

Image result for watts 103rd street rhythm band till you getSo who were these guys providing the raw but always tight & in the pocket backing for both Dyke & Charles Wright? Drummer James Gadson was complemented by bassist Melvin Dunlap, guitarist Al McKay was around until 1969 when he joined Earth, Wind & Fire, the slack taken up by Benorce Blackmon. There was a horn section & the whole thing was tied together by keyboard/arranger Ray Jackson. James was unsettled by a lack of credit for his input on the smooth perfect “Love Land” on which he sang. In 1971 he, Dunlap, Blackmon & Jackson left to join the very successful Bill Withers. They can be heard at their consummate best on Bill’s “Live at Carnegie Hall” record & seen on the star’s in concert Y-tube clips. The band do their thing sitting down too, James Gadson always smiling because it’s that good. Imagine how hard that groove would have been if they had bothered to stand up!

 

 

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“How Are You?” “Old” (Almodovar And More)

Are there more films around concerning the passing of the years & reflections on childhood or is it just that now I’ve reached a certain age I’m paying more attention to them? In 2016 “The Distinguished Citizen” (“El Cuidadano Ilustre”) entertainingly told the story of a Nobel Literature Laureate (Oscar Martinez from the brilliant “Wild Tales”), wealthy & now unmotivated to write, accepting an invitation to return from Spain to his hometown in Argentina where his memories & the often resentful characters from his novels await. Last year Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” lovingly & painstakingly captured his own upbringing in 1970’s Mexico City & was deservedly awarded the Oscars for Cinematography, Direction & Best Foreign Language Film (though my vote went to “Shoplifters” from Japan). While I’m interested when others share their cogitations there’s ample contemplative retrospection in my real life thank you. It’s OK because this week I saw “Pain & Glory” (“Dolor Y Gloria”), the new film from Pedro Almodovar & I’ll bet my pension that it will be some time before I need to watch another movie about love, loss & Life.

 

 

In the photo a Caucasian male and a Hispanic female can be seen.

Pedro y Penelope

Pedro Almodovar, a master of cinema, is 70 this month & has been directing films for almost 40 years. Since his international breakthrough in 1988 with “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown” his sophisticated, subversive, sometimes melodramatic or outrageous observations on modern Spain (it’s a list…a long one) has established him as the legatee of their genius Luis Bunuel & worthy of a placing alongside the great directors of cinematic history. “Pain & Glory” is the most autobiographical of his films, thematically & stylistically Almodovariano, casting two of his greatest stars while delivering a singular personal statement with integrity & honesty.

 

Image result for pain & glorySalvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, grizzled, handsome, sensational) is a film maker who no longer makes films, preoccupied with psychological & physical ailments. A revival of one of his movies reconnects him to the estranged star & to heroin, a drug he had some experience of. His opiate induced absorptions return him to childhood living in a cave with his mother (Played by Penelope Cruz with the sensuality of Sophia Loren) & a love for cinema smelling of “piss, jasmine & a summer breeze”. There’s a reunion with a former lover, Salvo’s first feelings of homosexuality & meetings with his dying mother (Julieta Serrano cast as Banderas’ mother for the third time). All of it is at a perfect emotional pitch &, employing a palette of red & white, looks absolutely gorgeous. The soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias is similarly evocative. Almodovar’s films are not always as fully realised though different folks see different strokes of inspiration in each of them. “Pain & Glory”, with its closing reminder that we have been watching a film, is a masterpiece from a director in absolute control of his undoubted talents.

 

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OH!

 

 

Image result for once upon a time in hollywoodIt was an early start on Sunday lunchtime for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. It would have been earlier but the multiplex staff forgot about us though the delay meant that we were spared the interminable commercials/trailers time waste & went straight to Los Angeles in 1969. Well, into Quentin Tarantino’s version of La-La land. QT’s movies, steeped in popular culture references, all have an element of anamnesis. The movie homages (steals?), artfully placed posters, the kitschy-cool Pop soundtracks all reflect his life-long preoccupations. This time around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star on the wane, is constantly reminded of his successful past. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) his former stunt double now a gofer is similarly reduced, living in a trailer adjacent to a drive-in cinema. They can’t buy a break in the New Hollywood. Rick’s boozing & Cliff beating up Bruce Lee when he does get a job doesn’t help. Meanwhile Rick’s next door neighbours, Roman Polanski & Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) are living the life.

 

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OH!

“…in Hollywood” is packed with references to movies & TV shows, real & imagined. The director has some fun morphing Rick into “The Great Escape”. There are some fine scenes, Rick does proper acting, Sharon goes to see one of her movies, Cliff’s visit to the Spahn movie ranch with those damned Manson Family hippies. Then there’s Tarantino’s whipcrack dialogue, it’s a long film but listening to his characters shoot the breeze is always a reason to hand over the entrance fee. A fair chunk of the Internet & the commentariat likes to snark at such a visible, sometimes controversial director. There’s a new Charlie’s Angels film coming up, you’ll be OK. The ending has raised some kerfuffle, violence in a Tarantino movie…who knew? The clue is in the “Once Upon a Time…”, it’s a reverie, only a movie. Jeez, in one of his films he killed Hitler, that didn’t really happen either.

 

My companion & I had seen every Tarantino film & on the way home we talked about wanting to return to them (me, “Jackie Brown”, him, “Reservoir Dogs”). Damn, if “Kill Me Now Ringo, Said The Gringo”, a Spaghetti Western Rick made in Italy, exists then we would pay to see that too. We’re already on the lookout for  the flame thrower-heavy “The 14 Fists of McCluskey”. “Anyone order fried sauerkraut?”

 

 

Related imageBong Joon Ho returns to South Korea for “Parasite”. He went to Hollywood to make the sci-fi classic “Snowpiercer” (2013), on to Netflix for “Okja” (2017), a capable satire about corporations starring a very big pig. “Parasite” concerns a poor family of four struggling to get along in the gig economy, living in a shabby basement. The son, Ki-woo, catches a break & after a little fakery gets work with a very wealthy one-percenter family. A plan is hatched to change their luck & the rest is their story. South Korea’s first winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes is an intricate film, a biting social commentary on the class divide, an amoral, absurd black comedy, a drama which becomes a tense thriller. Each tonal shift is wonderfully & entertainingly handled by the director, the dispassionate camera lens allowing you to make up your own mind about the protagonists. A nod to Hye-jin Jang as the cynical, profane mother, my favourite character. Things I learnt from “Parasite”, the rich don’t like the smell of the poor & the best plan is no plan, then nothing can go wrong.

 

It’s evidently been an outstanding week’s viewing round here. I’ve already handed out the ultimate “masterpiece” tag to Almodovar’s film so I’m reluctant to pin the same accolade on “Parasite”. I’ll probably regret that after another six months of the usual Hollywood dreck but for sure this is another Hit From the Bong (thank you!). Catch it if you can.

Sumpin’ Funky Going On (Donnie Fritts)

Donnie Fritts, the songwriter & musician who sadly died this week, once said that he would retire if Ray Charles ever recorded one of his songs. When this actually did happen Donnie cried tears of joy & thankfully for us all, kept on doing the thing he’s always done. He may not be as familiar a name as some of his contemporaries but the frequency he shows up on record label credits endorses his reputation as a reliable & influential personality beyond his Muscle Shoals base.

 

Donnie Fritts was born in 1942 in Florence, Alabama, a teenage drummer, part of a scene raised on Country & Western, influenced by the Rock & Roll of Elvis Presley & by the R&B played by disc jockeys like Hoss Allen on WLAC in Nashville. This crew of young white boys had a local studio where they could learn how a song went. When Tommy Roe, a teen idol, was sent to the Muscle Shoals FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studios to record Donnie & his old band mate Dan Penn had a song for him. “Sorry I’m Late Lisa” became the b-side of “Everybody” a 1963 Top 10 hit. Donnie was in at the very start of something big.

 

 

He was around again when Penn moved across to American Studios in Memphis & broke big with a trio of hits for the Box Tops. The bluesy “Choo Choo Train” kept the run going. I liked the Box Tops & I liked this song. So, evidently did Quentin Tarantino as it turns up in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Donnie always had a song, usually written with someone, for whoever was around. “Behind Every Great Man There’s A Woman” is a great re-write of “When A Man Loves A Woman” for Percy Sledge, all the better for not having heard it a million times. There were others for Percy, a single for Sam & Dave, an album track for Tony Joe White. When Dusty Springfield came to Memphis in 1968 Fritts & regular partner Eddie Hinton brought the languid “Breakfast In Bed”, the next best known song, after “Son of a Preacher Man”, on a landmark record. The following year Atlantic repeated the trick & brought Lulu to Muscle Shoals where the same pair had “Where’s Eddie” waiting for the Scottish songstress.

 

 

Image result for donnie fritts kristoffersonDonnie was a piano player now but there were others, Spooner Oldham, David Briggs, around at Muscle Shoals. As a songwriter the deals were done up in Nashville & it was there he got the gig, which lasted for 25 years, of playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Theirs was a close friendship, “Funky” Donnie Fritts is name checked on the introduction to Kris’ “The Pilgrim” (used by Scorsese in “Taxi Driver”) & he had co-writing credits on the early albums. The KK connection took Donnie to Hollywood for small roles in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”, two other Peckinpah joints & Monte Hellman’s fantastic “Cockfighter”. Nice work.

 

 

Image result for donnie fritts dan pennIn 1974 Donnie made his own LP. The title track of “Prone To Lean” was written for & about his economy of movement, the Alabama Leaning Man’s propensity to find the nearest wall for support, by Kristofferson. A Muscle Shoals all-star band, including the impeccable rhythm section, David Hood, Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins, showed out for a swampy Shoals Funk session, a self-possessed’ easygoing, heartfelt collection with no lack of dry humour. Donnie now had a portfolio of melodic songs, simply but strongly constructed, which lent themselves to the full spectra of Country & R&B. Dozens of artists wanted to record them.

 

 

Ray Charles was not the only one who recorded “We Had It All”. Written with Nashville Hall of Famer Troy Seals the ballad originally appeared on “Honky Tonk Heroes” the 1973 album by Waylon Jennings, a milestone of Outlaw Country. It’s been covered by an extensive & diverse range of artists, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Scott Walker, Tina Turner, I’ll stop there. Oh yeah, in 1978 while recording “Some Girls” Keith Richard showed his love & respect for Heartbreak Country with a wonderful version which didn’t make the final album but is the one that makes the cut here.

 

There was another solo record in 1997 when many of Donnie’s friends, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Waylon, happily gave assistance. In 2004 the old gang had a reunion as the Country Soul Revue, something would have been missing if he had not been involved. He was given the opportunity to to record again in 2015 & was joined by younger artists, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, who had grown up listening to & admiring his work.

 

 

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Arthur, Dan & Donnie

Donnie met Arthur Alexander Jr when he was 16. They became teacher & student, friends & collaborators, as “June” made the first hits from Muscle Shoals with his thoroughly modern, influential (the Beatles & the Stones!) Pop Soul songs. In 1972 he contributed to Arthur’s marvellous eponymous LP & again to 1993’s “Lonely Just Like Me” which included their stunning “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”. Last year, 2018, aged 75, Donnie released a tribute to his friend, a gorgeous, sincere, of course sentimental collection of Southern Soul which makes me smile & then chokes me up.

 

Image result for donnie fritts dan pennDonnie Fritts lived a long & happy life making the music he loved with his friends. Back in the 1950’s, when the alternative was picking cotton, he couldn’t have imagined that his weekend hobby would make him a living, take him around the world & that his songs would endure for & affect generations. He was part of a small, talented group who rode their luck & made their mark on American music. I apologise if there are too many clips in this post, I could have chosen twice as many & I’m sure there are others to be discovered. Funky Donnie Fritts was one of the good guys.

 

Back To Someone Else’s Garden (UK Pop-Psych August 1969)

So 50 years ago this month the Woodstock Festival happened. There’s a 38 CD, 432 track collection to sell to the millions of us who first listened to the original double album, saw the film many times & took enough acid to convince ourselves that we were one of the 400,000 who did get to Yasgur’s Farm. We’re lucky that the Woodstock Generation now has £655 ($800) to spare on such an artefact. Me, I’ll stick with “National Lampoon’s Lemmings” double LP where, among others, John Belushi, Chevy Chase & Christopher Guest celebrate mass suicide at the “Woodshuck Festival of Peace, Love, and Death”. That whole kit & caboodle box set won’t include the Motown Manifestos singing “Papa Was a Running-Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie” or Farmer Yassur’s quote “long hair, short hair, what the hell’s the difference once the head’s blowed off?”

 

 

Image result for isle of wight festival 1969Not to be outdone in the UK just two weeks later 150,000 music fans went to the Isle of Wight, a rock off the South Coast of England, for their very own festival. After a smaller event in 1968 the organisers, showing no lack of ambition, acquired the services of Bob Dylan & the Band. The future Nobel laureate had not performed for the 3 years since his motorcycle accident, it was a coup & the 3-day event became a very big deal. The Who, Joe Cocker & Richie Havens had also appeared at Woodstock & the rest of the bill was made up of the Folk Rock & Progressive Blues bands prevalent in 1969. From the accounts of those who can remember that they were there everybody had a good time & the return to the stage of Dylan made for a very significant occasion. The following year, when festivals were absolutely a thing, over 600,000 hippies came to the island. Thank goodness those types never washed, there’s no way there were enough bathrooms for that many folk.

 

 

Image result for fairport convention unhalfbrickingFairport Convention had covered a Dylan song on each of their first two records. When the young group were given access to a cluster of unrecorded songs now known as “The Basement Tapes” like kids in sweet shop they greedily grabbed three of them for “Unhalfbricking”, their third LP. Fairport’s range of influences, from traditional Folk songs across to the West Coast of the USA & contributions from 5 of the 6 members made for an eclectic (I never use that word!) mix that was assured & attractive. “What We Did On Our Holidays”, released earlier in 1969, was a move forward. Island had put the track “Meet on the Ledge” on their successful (& cheap) promo sampler “You Can All Join In” & it served as their calling card.

 

 

Image result for sandy denny 1969There’s only good things to be said about Fairport & about “Unhalfbricking”. They were all accomplished & in guitarist Richard Thompson & singer Sandy Denny the group incorporated two outstanding talents. Just 20, Richards songwriting was developing (“Genesis Hall” is one of his) & he was becoming a distinctive, stylish instrumentalist. It was on this record that Sandy, who had joined for “…Holidays”, confirmed her unique, beautiful gift. Of the Dylan covers “Si Tu Dois Partir”. a French version of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” & “Million Dollar Bash” are ramshackle fun, something I’ve always been a fan of. The other, “Percy’s Song”, is as much a highlight as the one take, 11 minute long, interpretation of the traditional song “A Sailor’s Life”. Folk Rock had become a thing in British music & Fairport Convention were advocates, instigators & masters of the fusion. On Sandy’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” the dazzling interplay of her vocal & Richard’s guitar transcends any labels making for a stunning, gorgeous, timeless classic which. 50 years on, still stirs & moves anyone with a soul.

 

This was a difficult time for Fairport Convention. Just two months before the release of “Unhalfbricking” the group’s van was involved in an accident which resulted in the death of teenage drummer Martin Lamble & Richard’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Such a tragedy obviously instigated a period of mourning & introspection which jeopardised the group’s future. On the new record they had been augmented by Dave Swarbrick, a virtuoso on the fiddle. When he & drummer Dave Mattacks became permanent members the Folk force was even stronger. Fairport’s success was consolidated with their next LP “Liege & Lief”, the ‘most important folk album of all time’ according to the BBC. If you don’t know that one then I recommend that you get to it, after you’ve given “Unhalfbricking ” a listen.

 

 

Related imageOf course we were all Moonstruck in August 1969. The previous month a quick visit to our sole satellite confirmed that the the technological possibilities of the human race were endless. The colonisation of space, jetpacks for all & a diet of tasty pellets of dehydrated food seemed to be just around the corner. To commemorate such an auspicious event President records issued a psyche-sploitation 45 by the Cape Kennedy Construction Company. Very little is known is known about the group, “First Step on the Moon” is co-written by Barbara Ruskin, a singer-songwriter who made records in an assortment of mid-60’s styles, Johnny Hawkins, her producer at the label, had something to do with it & er, that’s about it. It’s a good, interesting example of Harmony Pop tricked up with plenty of extra-terrestrial effects (Joe Meek would have been just the man for the job). The B-side “Armageddon” is even more out there but both tracks made little impression at the time. Their inclusion on Psych-Pop collections & an endorsement by that bloke off of Oasis has recently increased their visibility.

 

The C.K.C.C’s thunder was stolen by another opportunistic orbital opus. Now I know that David Bowie is one of the most influential, innovative & important artists of our generation but the stylophone-drenched “Space Oddity” struck me at the time as yet another of his gimmicks. His first hit followed an unsuccessful trio of 45’s, “Rubber Band”, “The Laughing Gnome” & “Love You Till Tuesday”. This was the “try anything for a hit” period, the wannabe Anthony Newley times which I could take or leave (usually the latter). Bowie changed, I did too but I’ve just said this last paragraph out loud haven’t I? Blimey, I hope I don’t lose any friends over this!

A Better Day Is Coming (Soul August 1969)

Well OK, the good people at Billboard magazine have removed their chart archive from the Interwebs. No doubt the listings will return once those kind folk have figured out a way of getting interested parties (that would be me) to hand over some of their hard-earned to access the inspiration information required for these monthly posts. I just might do that, probably not. Fortunately just a few clicks away are the Cash Box R&B weekly rankings for 1969, pretty much the same discs in a slightly different order. So, for now, I’m a Cash Box guy & let’s get to the August selection (Blimey, is it August already?).

 

At the beginning of the month there was a second #1 of the year for “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, “Mr Please, Please, Please”, James Brown. The double-bracketed “Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have a Mother For Me) (Part 1)” is a groovalicious invocation to dance ’till you feel better , co-written by James & bandleader/saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, featuring the band’s other sax ace Maceo Parker. Doing the Popcorn, if I knew how, will have to wait. The song that replaced JB at the top spot is a landmark by a significant artist.

 

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsFor over a decade the Impressions had been making impressive, intelligent, influential music. A trio since 1963, under the guidance of Curtis Mayfield the group transitioned through Doo Wop to sweet Gospel & equally pleasing romantic Soul, honest sentiments expressed in spectacular harmonies. As early as 1964 Curtis’ involvement with the Civil Rights movement was reflected in his music. “Keep On Pushing” is an anthem to empowerment & 1967’s “We’re A Winner”, the group’s biggest hit in almost 4 years, an assertion of Black pride before that became a thing in Soul music. “Choice of Colors”, another affirmation of Mayfield’s idealism & hope for progress. has a lyrical maturity & the vocals, shared between Curtis, Fred & Sam, are the very thing. Three sharp-dressed young Black men singing “How long have you hated your white teacher?” must have caused a stir. Taken from their latest LP “The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story”, a pairing with the funky, equally pertinent, “Mighty Mighty Spade & Whitey” made for a substantial 7″ of plastic. Of course the song is Panglossian, you may say that he’s a dreamer but he was not the only one in 1969 & perhaps a little optimistic reflection regarding race relations in the US would still not go amiss 50 years later.

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsCurtis, in parallel with his day job as an Impression, had an education in the music business at Okeh Records in Chicago with producer/executive  Billy Davis & arranger Jerry Pate, respectively 10 & 20 years older. He wrote songs for many of the artists on the label & he learned how a hit record went. Now I can hear that Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time” & “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” (really!) are Mayfield songs. All I knew in the mid-60’s was that I liked them. With the start-up, along with his manager Eddie Thomas, of Curtom Records in 1968 the Impressions moved to Curtis’ own label & their leader made plans for a solo career. Having his own studio & greater independence allowed him to expand his commentaries on the American situation & to embrace the new Funk. Curtis Mayfield was moving on up & we could do worse than go along with him.

 

 

Image result for five stairstepsThe Five Stairsteps, teenagers, four brothers & their sister from Chicago, were dubbed the “First Family of Soul”. The quintet had been produced by Curtis for an album on Windy City, an earlier Mayfield enterprise. The group were the first to be signed to Curtom, the LP “Love’s Happening” the second full-length release on the label & the boss was all over it. “Love’s Happening” really is a notable record. Curtis’ songs, fresh vocals matched to effervescent arrangements by another new recruit, the multi-talented Donny Hathaway, make for some very enjoyable Chicago Pop-Soul. The five were joined by their three year old brother & billed as the Five Stairsteps & Cubie though the infant was only heard on the throwaway “The New Dance Craze”. Infectious floor-fillers like “Stay Close To Me” extended their consistent run of Top 20 R&B hits.

 

“Madame Mary” is an odd one. I found it in the low 30’s of that disappearing Billboard chart but it’s nowhere to be found on the Cashbox list. A non-album track it was obviously recorded at a later date than the other Curtom releases, busier & funkier, a turn up the road  Curtis Mayfield would be taking in his solo career. In 1970 the Impressions included their own version of the song on the “Check Out Your Mind” LP, the final one that Curtis made with the group. It was in this year, now away from Curtom, that the Five Stairsteps enjoyed & deserved their biggest success with the damned near perfect original of the much-covered “O-o-h Child”.

 

 

Image result for jerry butler moody womanAt #12 in the chart, it had been as high as #5, was “Moody Woman” by Jerry Butler, another artist with a strong connection to Curtis Mayfield. Church choir-mates, the first Impressions records were released as Jerry Butler & the… When Jerry left for a solo career several of his chart hits were written & featured backing vocals by his friend. His smooth confident style earned him “The Iceman” soubriquet, his biggest hits were with songs that are now regarded as standards (though he was the first to get to Bacharach & David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself”). This facility & wide range could mean that his albums, while sounding fine, were padded with cover version filler. In 1968 Mercury Records made the inspired decision to pair Jerry with a young hot-shot producer/writing team from Philadelphia.

 

Image result for jerry butler ice on iceKenny Gamble & Leon Huff had already enjoyed some success & now, with a full album to do, they were more than able to take their chance. On the resulting “The Iceman Cometh” LP of the 11 tracks, all credited to the trio, 4 entered the R&B Top 10 (2 made #1) & Jerry Butler was as big a name as he had ever been. “Moody Woman” is the opening track on the following “Ice On Ice”, a track which may not match the peerless “Only the Strong Survive” but the first of another 4 successful 45’s from the record. The producers retained Jerry’s refinement, adding fluent, uptempo, innovative arrangements using a string section in ways that hadn’t been heard before. This wasn’t just a new contemporary Soul it was the future. Jerry Butler went on to make more fine records, with their Philadelphia International label Gamble & Huff’s would soon become the dominant sound of commercial Black music. It was here, in collaboration with Butler, that this sound first came together & to our notice.

 

If I’m still looking back to 50 years ago in the early 2020’s (& I hope that I am) & you’re still hanging around I’m sure that you will be hearing plenty more from Curtis Mayfield & from Gamble & Huff.

Shoots From The Hip, Hip When He Shoots (Michael Ritchie)

The 1970’s in American cinema is quite rightly regarded as a decade of great creativity. Directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick & others, who had initially worked within the limitations of studio control, matured & flourished as they enjoyed greater independence. They inspired & were joined by the younger “movie brats” Coppola, Cimino, Lucas, Spielberg & Scorsese. It’s a list, a long one, I’ve not mentioned some of my & your favourites & I’m about to add Michael Ritchie. merited by an impressive run of films which still provoke & entertain & are always welcome when they come around on the TV.

 

Image result for downhill racer movie michael ritchieAfter Harvard Ritchie served his directorial apprenticeship on successful shows like “Dr Kildare”, “The Big Valley” & a single episode of “The Man From UNCLE”.  He directed 11 installments of “Run For Your Life”, a series starring Ben Gazzara created by the same crew who made “The Fugitive” (now that sounds good). His debut feature film, “Downhill Racer” (1969), hit cinemas just two weeks after “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” had become the current rage, the highest grossing film of the year & made Robert Redford a major star. In “Downhill Racer” Redford is matched with Gene Hackman, not yet as recognisable as he was to become, who had made a big impression in 1967’s “Bonnie & Clyde”

 

The film is a sharp, succinct commentary on competition & success set in the world of Alpine skiing. Redford’s Olympic hopeful is talented, narcissistic & arrogant, he clashes with the pragmatic, angry (you’ve seen Gene act) coach Hackman. The spare semi-documentary feel, Ritchie hired Ken Loach’s cinematographer & sound man, & the excellently shot race scenes made “Downhill Racer” a pretty good sports movie (it’s not really about sport) & a distinctive, well-received debut for Ritchie. His next two films, released in 1972, featured the same actors.

 

 

Image result for prime cut movieFirst up was “Prime Cut” which matched Lee Marvin (Devlin),  a hitman with a heart, against Hackman (Mary Ann), a slaughterhouse owner with a sideline in slavery. Devlin is sent  to the Kansas prairies by the Chicago Mob after Mary Ann had made mincemeat & then sausages of the previous man for the job. This bootleg butchery is shown in Ritchie’s stylish opening sequence. “Prime Cut” is an amoral, violent, entertaining action film. Marvin is a man with a mission, not to be distracted by Hackman’s moustache-twirling bad guy or young orphan Poppy (Sissy Spacek). There’s a nod to Hitchcock with a combine harvester chase through a cornfield. Spoiler alert…the people get away, a car gets killed.

 

The Midwest mayhem of “Prime Cut” has fine performances from its two stars, memorable set pieces & pulpy dialogue. 1972 was a big year for crime thrillers. There’s a built-to-last solidity about “The Godfather”, “The Getaway” & “Deliverance”. Michael Ritchie’s other film from that year effectively caught the mood of the times & can be considered one of the beat films of a very good year.

 

Robert Redford was 32 when he appeared in “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” (1969), a breakthrough role. He managed his position as a new Hollywood star very cannily & in 1972 starred in 3 films where he turned up, looked handsome & displayed his acting chops. “The Hot Rock” is a clever heist movie, the one about the mountain man “Jeremiah Johnson” was a big hit. He was very involved in the production of “The Candidate”, his second hook up with Michael Ritchie, as cynical as a political movie needed to be in 1972, the year that Richard Nixon was re-elected President by a landslide.

 

 

Image result for the candidate movieSo, Bill McKay (Redford) an idealistic lawyer, son of a former Democratic governor, runs for the US Senate. The deal is that he can’t win so he can speak his mind. McKay is telegenic & a moderation of his message brings an upswing in the polls. In fact the less he says the more likely an upset becomes. Redford hits the spot as the bemused McKay (vote once, vote twice) at the mercy of a pair of jaundiced political pros played by the outstanding Peter Boyle & Allen Garfield. The script by Jeremy Larner, a former speechwriter for Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. These days we know that all politicians are lower than whale shit. TV series like “The Thick of It”, “Veep” & “House of Cards” entertain while confirming that an absence of conscience is a political asset. “The Candidate” hit the bullseye with its points about media influence on the election process, reducing debate to non-sequitur soundbites, encouraging, with the complicity of those chasing votes, the generic rather than the specific. “The Candidate” did this in 1972…it was a warning.

 

Related image Ritchie’s position as a leading cinematic satirist was consolidated with “Smile” (1975), a faux documentary about a teenage beauty pageant, another riff on the failure of American success. It may seem an easy target now but this dark, very funny film, with an  ensemble cast lead by Bruce Dern, retains an affection & consideration for the participants alongside the mockery & cynicism. Satire was quite the thing in 1975, post-Watergate, pre-Bicentennial. Altman’s “Nashville” & Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” may have had bigger budgets & more starpower but “Smile” catches the signs of the times just as well as these higher profile movies.

 

 

Image result for tatum o'neal bad news bearsI keep telling the young folk that they should watch the films of the great comedy actor Walter Matthau but he never played a Superhero so they don’t bother. “Whiplash Willie Gingrich (“The Fortune Cookie”), Oscar Madison (“The Odd Couple”) & Walter Burns (“The Front Page”) are wonderful characters, all lugubrious & anti-social (you’d like him), all in association with Jack Lemmon. I’m not forgetting “Charlie Varrick”. In 1975 Matthau traded insults, written by Neil Simon, with George Burns in “The Sunshine Boys” & was nominated for an Academy award. For his next film he hooked up with Michael Ritchie & it was time to meet Morris Buttermaker.

 

“The Bad News Bears” (1976) is not just a likeable film, it’s absolutely lovable. Buttermaker, an alcoholic former minor league pitcher is hired to coach a Little League baseball team made up of the incompetent kids the others won’t play with. They lose their first game 26-0. He recruits his ex-girlfriend’s daughter (Tatum O’Neal), the best pitcher in town, & the local teenage hoodlum (Jackie Earle Haley, last seen as the villain in “The Tick”). Of course things can only get better & the Bears make the championship game. They don’t win but valuable lessons are learned. So far, so Disney. Did I mention the alcoholism or “the amusement value of hearing little kids cuss like Marines” (Time)?

 

Image result for bad news bearsIn Michael Ritchie’s capable hands “The Bad News Bears” skewers the notion of competition, fair play & success in American society & it’s as funny as heck. Matthau’s hangdog cynicism is magnificent. Tatum O’Neal had won a Best Actress for her only other film & here, demanding Buttermaker pays for ballet lessons in return for playing, a young girl approaching adolescence, you can see why. The group of outsider kids are beautifully played & portrayed. Everyone has a different favourite, Tanner, short-tempered & an imaginative vocabulary, Ahmad, a Black Muslim Hank Aaron fan, the shy, “booger-eating moron” Timmy, the two non-English speaking Mexican brothers & there’s more. It’s not the greatest film ever made but it’s probably the best one about kids’ sport. Man, if ever a movie is going to raise your mood it’s this one. Here’s the ending…

 

 

That’s a pretty good run of film form, “The Bad News Bears” was a box office success & Michael Ritchie was surely set for the big movies. His contemporaries were being given stupid amounts of money, enough to bankrupt studios, to realise their visions.  Ritchie went on to direct films that you’ve seen & that I like but it never really happened for him. I’m not sure why, maybe I’ll have worked it out before I get to do Part Two of this thing.

 

 

Looking For Sugar (Soul July 1969)

After 6 weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B chart Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” was replaced by yet another #1 hit from the Tamla Motown stable. Junior Walker & the All Stars were the most old-school at the Detroit label, Walker’s raspy saxophone & throaty vocal interjections backed by that driving R&B beat always hit the spot. The rough edges were smoothed a little for “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” & the group had their biggest hit since 1965’s “Shotgun”. The Top 10 was packed with great artists, James Brown, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder. Climbing up to #10 was something new by someone new, another hit out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

 

 

Image result for candi staton i'd rather be an old man's sweetheartAs a teenager Candi Staton toured & recorded with her sister in the Jewell Gospel Trio. Married with four children, it was 1968 before she was ready to begin her solo career. Singer Clarence Carter, well established in Muscle Shoals & who was to become her second husband, introduced Candi to FAME. The studio pulled out all the Funky stops & a run of R&B hits, many written by Carter & George Jackson, earned her the title of “The First Lady of Southern Soul”. “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool)” absolutely fizzes along & Candi could slow it down too. I definitely prefer her version of “Stand By Your Man” to Tammy Wynette’s original.

 

Related imageCandi moved to Warner Brothers in 1974. She stayed with producer Rick Hall for another LP before hooking up with Dave Crawford. Out of these sessions came “Young Hearts Run Free”, a #1 R&B hit, #2 in the UK, an enduring Disco smash. 1976 was the year that all my friends seemed to be getting married, the DJ spins “Young Hearts…”, everyone’s out on the floor & these are the good times. The Bee Gees’ “Nights On Broadway” returned Ms Staton to the UK Top 10 the following year. In 1991 she was back when a remix by the Source of “You Got The Love”, a great lost track, became a party anthem. Whether it was Soul, Disco, Gospel or Dance music, Candi’s strong recognisable vocals always delivered.

 

 

Image result for honey cone while you're out looking for sugarRising to #41 is another debut release, this time on a brand new label. By 1968 Pop’s greatest writing/production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, had become dissatisfied with their position at Tamla Motown records. Responsible for over 20 #1 hits & countless other chart entries there’s not a chance that they saw all the royalties that they were due. The trio got themselves an office in downtown Detroit, converted a movie theatre into a studio & started Hot Wax records. The Honey Cone, a female trio, were the first act signed to the label & “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” their first record. As you see from the above disc there’s no mention of H-D-H. Ongoing litigation, particularly with Jobete, Motown’s publishing company, meant that sole production credit was given to A&R man Ron Dunbar who shared the writing with “Edith Wayne”, an adopted pseudonym. No-one was fooled, take a listen to the track, that’s how a Holland-Dozier-Holland song goes.

 

 

Image result for honey coneHoney Cone, Carolyn Willis, Shelly Clark & Edna Wright, were brought to the Motor City from Los Angeles where Shelly had been an Ikette & Edna had sung with her sister Darlene Love, a favourite of Phil Spector. The record buying public took some time to become accustomed to this urgent, energetic sound that wasn’t Diana Ross & the Supremes, “While You’re Out…”, “Girls It Ain’t Easy”, “Take Me With You” & the Funktastic “When Will It End” all should have been bigger hits. It was “Want Ads” that finally sold a million in 1971 & succeeding records followed it into the Billboard Pop Top 30. Their star was on the wane by 1973 when Holland-Dozier-Holland proved to be better record men than label executives & Hot Wax folded due to financial problems. That was it for Honey Cone which was a pity as they were not only well-liked but were a worthy part of the American girl group lineage.

 

 

This is where I love being the boss of this thing. The chart was crammed with great songs worthy of our consideration but at #45 was a single by one of my all-time favourite vocalists. So, my final selection for July has to be Howard Tate.

 

Image result for howard tate these are the thingsTate, born in Georgia, raised in Philadelphia, sang Gospel then R&B with Garnett Mimms. His friend brought Howard along to writer/producer Jerry Ragovoy & between 1966-68 the pair created a blend of Tate’s emotional Bluesy lamentations with a sophisticated Uptown New York Soul that was as good as it gets. Jerry liked a touch of drama in his arrangements, with Howard a lighter touch allowed a great singer to shine, never more so than with “Get It While You Can”, the title track of the one LP they made together & a song that has been equalled but rarely bettered. “These Are the Things That Make Me Know You’re Gone” was recorded, without Ragovoy, for Lloyd Price’s Turntable label. (Lloyd had major hits in the 1950’s with songs that you’ve heard of. That’s his photo on the above disc, well it was his company!) The LP “Howard Tate’s Reaction” is not as strong as his previous output but Howard sings the all heck out of the songs & there are not too many of his records about.

 

By the late-70’s Howard had quit the music business & got a real job. A family tragedy led to addiction & homelessness. He was back on the right track when in 2001 a disc jockey discovered him & encouraged him to return to performing. That wonderful voice had endured & there was an acclaimed new LP made with his old producer. Other records followed, the old ones were re-released & the renewal of interest allowed Tate to sing for a new international audience. Plenty of artists, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder & others have covered his songs but, as Soul fans know, there ain’t nothing like the real thing & Howard Tate is certainly that.

Sun Is Shining We’re Going Drivin’ (UK Pop Psych June 1969)

Despite the good intentions of record labels with a re-release schedule to fill there are only so many undiscovered, unappreciated at the time, “gems” to go around. There’s always a lot of good music about & it’s difficult for new talent to get a proper hearing & sometimes, y’know, these records are not that great. So, with apologies to Andwella’s Dream, Rainbow People & Pasha, all I’m sure worthy of investigation, my 3 selections from June 1969 are all by artists who enjoyed long successful careers. First up is Sheffield’s most famous gas fitter.

 

 

If ever there was a dead cert #1 record it was Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The transformation of a familiar song, one of the ditties Lennon &  McCartney gave Ringo to sing, into a soulful tour de force, a showcase for Joe’s leather-lunged vocal, was a masterstroke by producer Denny Cordell. In the early 1960’s there were young British men listening to & studying Ray Charles. In Newcastle, Belfast & Birmingham Eric Burdon, Van Morrison  & Stevie Winwood got the message & discovered their own extraordinary voices. Joe Cocker was up to the same thing in Sheffield, Yorkshire. It took a little longer, a couple of false starts, before the world heard & saw Joe When it happened you certainly knew about it.

 

Image result for joe cocker poster 1969Joe had a few songs of his own but Cordell, identifying his talent as a interpreter of other people’s songs, pointed him in the direction of some very good material for his debut LP. Assembling an array of mainly British talent in the studio (Jimmy Page plays on 5 tracks) the production avoided the exaggerations of the hit single, retaining the power & audacity behind such a distinctive voice. Traffic’s “Feeling Alright” is a grand opening, two Dylan tunes “Just Like a Woman” & “I Shall Be Released” are treated with reverence. “Do I Still Figure in Your Life?”, written by Pete Dello for his group Honeybus was one that inexplicably got away in 1967. Joe does the song & himself justice on this version.

 

Image result for joe cocker 1969In August 1969 Joe rocked up at the Woodstock Festival & the US of A loved him. A tour with his Grease Band was immediately followed by a hook up with Leon Russell who had written Joe’s marvelous “Delta Lady” single. “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”, a Rock & Roll travelling show, established Joe Cocker as a major international star but the intensive workload & on-the-road excesses took a physical & mental toll. He returned to Sheffield & it was some time before he was able to record & tour again. Joe never had to go back to servicing your boiler & thankfully didn’t join the time’s lengthy Rock casualty list. He was a major talent.

 

 

Related imageFor the past 5 years a new single by the Kinks had been a pretty big deal. Ever since 1964 when “You Really Got Me”, you know it, set a new standard for power chord guitar Rock most everything the group released on 7″ of vinyl had made the UK Top 10. Ray Davies was in the vanguard of a generation of British musicians who, following the lead of the Beatles, very quickly progressed from energetic imitation of their idols to expounding their own ideas about how the music should go & finding that millions were listening. The Kinks could rock but it was Ray’s mordant wit, one sharp, satirical eye on the Swinging Sixties, the other on the detail of English suburban life, that propelled an individual, consistent run of hits for which the group was best known.

 

The arrival of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” changed the game. Groups who had been judged on the success of their most recent 45 now needed an album. No problem for the Kinks, “Face to Face” (1966)  & “Something Else By the Kinks” (1967) were…look, you’ll get no objectivity here, these two records are great examples of 1960’s British Pop-Rock, up there with “Revolver”, “Aftermath” & “The Who Sell Out”. Ray was honing his songwriting talent & so was brother Dave, the LP’s both included big hit singles but they didn’t sell very well. With ” The Village Green Preservation Society” the Kinks eschewed the psychedelic flourishes of their contemporaries favouring a wistful  nostalgia, “pictures of things as they used to be”, vignettes about a past England which possibly never really existed. Of course now “Village Green” is more than well respected it’s deservedly a cherished artefact of the times. Lacking the broad strokes of “Tommy” or the expected grandeur of a Rock Opera it was in Ray’s words, “the most successful ever flop”. This time there was no hit single to help attract interest. (That would have been “Big Sky”, you hear? “Big Sky”).

 

Image result for the kinks drivinIn June 1969  “Drivin'” was our introduction to Ray’s next project. “Arthur (Or the Decline of the British Empire)” the soundtrack to a TV play that was never made. The LP was released later in the year & if anything his concept & vision is more fully realised this time around. Y’know I could name 20 or more Kinks singles without consulting the Google & “Drivin'” would not be one of them. That’s not because of any drop in quality, play it twice & hum it all day, more an indication that the group were no longer an automatic choice for the playlist on the UK’s only music radio station. On the b-side was “Mindless Child of Motherhood”, a brilliant Dave Davies track recorded for an intended solo LP that unfortunately we never heard. The Kinks may have been stuttering a little in 1969 but form is temporary while class is permanent. The next time out “Lola”, you know it, put them back where they belonged. The Kinks – God save ’em!

 

 

Down in that London on the 7th of June there was evidence of the British love of free stuff when 120,000 turned up in Hyde Park for a gig by a band yet to release a record & making their live debut. If Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood thought that their new collaboration could be a low-key affair they were wrong. Joined by drummer Ginger Baker, another former member of Cream & bassist Rick Grech who left Family to complete the line up & Blind Faith was immediately labelled a “supergroup”. An expectant audience spent a pleasant sunny afternoon in the Park but an under-rehearsed set of unfamiliar songs was not perhaps the soundtrack they anticipated.

 

Image result for blind faith hyde park free concertsThe band’s eponymous debut LP is a fine example of British Rock. The extended Blues jams of Cream are avoided but so are their power & dexterity. I probably liked “Well All Right”, the Buddy Holly cover, more then than I do now. Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” & Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord”, two very good songs, are better realisations of the band’s intentions. A US arena tour opened at Madison Square Garden & Eric found in Delaney & Bonnie, the support act, a group he really wanted to play with. Blind Faith broke up, Steve Winwood went back to Traffic & recorded the sublime “John Barleycorn Must Die”. Well, that was quick, Blind Faith were not so super after all.

 

Into The Groovy (Soul June 1969)

In the Summer of 69 I was 16 going on 17, you know what I mean, & the money in my pocket was not going to match the lifestyle to which I aspired. (I’m joking, none of these things that I do have ever amounted to a “Lifestyle”). My hometown steel plant employed temporary student labour but paid a lower rate to under-18’s so my Dad, a life-long socialist & keenly aware of the exploitative nature of the surplus value of labour, hooked me up with a friend’s construction company. It was my first proper work, the paper route didn’t count, & I loved it. The physical aspect of the job was enjoyable, they let me use the cement mixer, how cool was that? I may have been the butt of the older guys’ banter (there’s no such thing as tartan paint!) but it kept you fit & sharp. The holding folding for the weekend, after Mum had taken her cut (it’s OK, I owed her), well that was the point.

 

Oh yeah, the radio played all day long & there were some good ones about in June 1969. The UK Top 10 included the Beatles, Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson & CCR. The feelgood hit of the summer, the  #1 record on the Billboard R&B chart for the whole of June & most of July, was a song that did it for me then & still does now.

 

 

Image result for marvin gaye too busy thinking about my babyAt the end of 1968 Marvin Gaye had cleaned up, deservedly so, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. A worldwide hit it became the biggest selling single for Motown, a label that was no stranger to the people who handed out gold records. Norman Whitfield had co-written “Pride & Joy” Marvin’s first US Top 10 record. With the departure from the company of ace producing/writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, already well established, he stepped up his game. His work with the Temptations became more ambitious & experimental while for Marvin, re-working songs from his own back catalogue, Whitfield constructed perfect Pop-Soul classics. “Grapevine”, a recent hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, became an ominous cry of betrayal & disbelief while “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby”, originally on a 1966 Temptations’ LP, a joyous declaration of love. You hear that opening “Ah-ah-ha, Oh Yeah” & you know that here comes 3 minutes of happiness. A beautiful record, a consummate follow-up tailor-made to enhance Marvin’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost Soul singers.

 

Marvin Gaye, always a complicated man, was not in a good place in 1969. His early ambitions to emulate his idol Nat King Cole were now outdated as times changed, he had been deeply affected by the onstage collapse & subsequent illness of Tammi Terrell, his partner for a spectacular run of hit duets. His relationship with Berry Gordy, his brother-in-law as well as his label boss, was turbulent. A period of depression & introspection allied to a desire for the greater autonomy that other Soul artists were enjoying realised a flourishing creativity & an individual form of expression that genuinely moved Soul music forward. I’m sorry but if you don’t think that “What’s Going  On” (1971) is a cornerstone of modern American music then it’s unlikely that we could ever be friends.

 

 

Image result for supremes no matter what sign you areSticking in Detroit with Motown at #25 in the chart of June 21st was the latest 45 from the label’s premier female unit. These were unstable times for the Supremes, now known as Diana Ross & the… The drawn-out, messy departure of Florence Ballard, replaced by Cindy Birdsong, affected the group’s popularity. Despite Diane’s star treatment fans held all three of the original members in high regard. The rich seam of smash hits from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line was drying up. In 1968 while “Love Child” became an 11th #1, other singles including  the marvelous H-D-H song “Forever Came Today”, were less successful. Plans for Ms Ross’ solo career were fixed & ready to be given the green light.

 

I liked “No Matter What Sign You Are”, the Age of Aquarius was thing back then. The trio, fixtures on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, give it plenty in their glittery, fringed finery. Diana is lip-synching to her own voice, Mary & Cindy were not needed in the studio where the Andantes took care of the backing vocals. Written by Berry Gordy & Hank Cosby it was intended to be the group’s farewell record but despite this groovy prime-time promotion it did not achieve the success anticipated by the label. Later in the year “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was a more appropriately valedictory choice, the group’s 12th & final US #1 song. The phenomenon that was Diana Ross & the Supremes were now two separate acts.

 

 

Back in the very olden days when I didn’t know much about anything at all (& didn’t need to) I had a strong feeling that I really did like the records made by the Coasters. In 1958/9 the group, based in New York, had 3 UK Top 20 hits with irrepressible, irreverent story-songs, my first experience of cool American humour & probably my initial exposure to Rhythm & Blues. Both “Yakety Yak” & “Charlie Brown” featured  exciting, honking saxophone insertions played by a young Texan establishing himself on the NY session scene. Later, when I became aware of just how good King Curtis was, I wasn’t surprised that he had caught my ear previously.

 

Image result for king curtis instant groove“Instant Groove” was a new entry on the Billboard R&B chart this week at #35. King, Curtis Ousley, had signed with Atlantic & assembled a group of the finest session players in New York. “Memphis Soul Stew” was as succulent as it sounds, each ingredient/instrument successively introduced to the pot, a recipe for a spicy, effervescent brew that few instrumentals could match. “Instant Groove” is exactly what it says on the label. Originally recorded & produced by KC with his “Orchestra” (including young Jimi Hendrix) as “Help Me” for Ray Sharpe in 1966, the following year the “Gloria” inspired riff reappeared on Aretha Franklin’s first LP for Atlantic as “Save Me”. The NYC Funk version features a great bass solo by Jerry Jemmott. He & the other Kingpins, Richard Tee (keyboards), Cornell Dupree (guitar) & Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (drums) could play any music put in front of them. When they played with King Curtis he brought out their Soul.

 

Image result for king curtisBy 1971 King Curtis was at the apex of his career. In March he & the Kingpins supported & backed Aretha Franklin for 3 concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Live albums of the occasion were released by both artists. “Soul Train”, a new TV programme called when a theme tune was required. The actual John Lennon needed half a pint of horn for a couple of tracks on “Imagine” & KC, who had been on the undercard at Shea Stadium back when Beatlemania was a thing, was the best man for the job. In August of that year, on the steps up to his Manhattan apartment, he became involved in an argument with a couple of drug dealers & was fatally stabbed, he was 37 years old. Tragic.

New Music For June 2019

“Yawn” by Bill Ryder-Jones was the best album of 2018. Not some 14 day wonder that catches your ear, gets a few plays because of the novelty of having shiny new music around the house before returning to the tried & tested, it’s a record that has impressed me more than any others by “newer” artists that have crossed my path. “Yawn” still shares a place at the front of the stack with recent releases by Edwyn Collins, J.J. Cale & Wreckless Eric, musicians who have been a treasure & a pleasure for a long time now. This week Bill announced the upcoming release of “Yawny Yawn”, a re-imagining of his record for just voice & piano. Of course I’m going to be interested in such a project, even more so after seeing & hearing the first track he has made available.

 

 

Image result for bill ryder jonesBill says that “ I presume at some point I felt that the original had too much pep”, an example of the man’s dry wit. He’s a master of matter-of-fact Merseyside melancholia &, as he sings, “there’s a fortune to be had from telling people your sad”. “Yawn” has it’s share of loss, regret & introspection that I find to be honest & emotional rather than miserable. The soundscapes & sometimes surprising guitar interjections certainly add power & beauty to the songs but “Don’t Be Scared I Love You”, already a little cracker, sounds just fine in its new sparse arrangement. Bill’s lyrics are strong enough to stand the stripped-back treatment & when “Yawny Yawn” is released on July 26th I for one will be on it.

 

So what else is new?

 

 

Image result for whitney bandI was talking up Whitney’s “Light Upon the Lake” album all those years ago in 2016.  We have to wait until the end of August for “Forever Turned Around” & this week the group have given us a taste with the almost instrumental “FTA” & “Giving Up”. “Light…” came around at a time when I was feeling that some of my favourite US artists had perhaps become a little predictable, their best work already done. Whitney’s fresh light touch, melodic Indie with soulful folky undertones appealed as precisely the update that Americana needed. The group checked for Levon Helm (Julian Ehrlich is another singing drummer) & Allen Toussaint & while they are hardly as Funky as Lee Dorsey (who is?) these are pretty good names to aspire to. The smooth swoop of Max Kakacek’s guitar brought to mind George Harrison & still does, another pretty good influence to have around. Julian’s individual, distinctive voice is a taste I’ve been happy to acquire, “Giving Up” bodes well for the new collection, that trumpet/guitar break is just lovely. Bring It On.

 

 

Image result for the skints swimming lessonsIt’s within living memory that I was tagging the Skints as the best young band in the UK. “Swimming Lessons”, the group’s 4th album, is the expected conflation of dubby reggae, rap & punky power chords blended with assurance & energy. They are a 4-piece with 3 vocalists who all get their turn on lead. Marcia Richards has the sweetest voice while guitarist Joshua chats his conscious lyrics. It’s Jamie, the drummer/singer, who has always hit the spot with UK Pop Reggae that would not be out of place on an early Dennis Brown LP.. At their best the Skints bring to mind the Specials, a group who combined Ska & social commentary with commercial appeal more effectively than any other. Perhaps none of the new tracks stand out like “This Town” or “The Cost of Living is Killing Me” though a little more time spent with “The Island”, a no holds barred state of the nation address, could change my mind. The Skints are growing up, the range of their music is ambitious & always worth a listen because they get it & they get it right.

 

OK that’s 3 & “Humanworld”, the new LP from Peter Perrett arrived this week, time will definitely be made for that. It’s a proper treat to hear more new songs from the former member of the Only Ones after so long away from the studio. Yesterday I discovered that there’s an upcoming Richard Hawley record. It keeps you busy all this new music business, I’m not surprised that people stick to the things they already know & love!