Bonana-Fanna-Fo-Fer-ley (Shirley Ellis)

Hey ! Over here ! Do you want to hear a song called “Ever See a Diver Kiss His Wife While the Bubbles Bounce About Above the Water?” ? Well of course you do, you’re not nuts ! Just one click & it will happen. Shirley Ellis was a Jill-of-all-trades, equally comfortable with Jazz, standards or R&B & eccentric, energetic versions of nursery rhymes/skipping songs. It was the latter of these which gave her 3 US Top 10 hits in 18 months so those are the songs she is remembered for. I’m not about to make a case for Shirley being one of the greats. The hits were simple & were often novelties but they were fresh, smart & bold, she made an impression & I like them.

 

 

Image result for shirley ellis nitty grittyIt’s January 1964, in just 2 weeks the Beatles are coming to rid the US Top 10 of Singing Nuns & Italian-American teen idols called Bobby or Fabien. The only keepers are the great garage anthems “Louie Louie” & “Surfing Bird” along with Shirley Ellis & her first hit “The Nitty Gritty”. I have checked for the etymology of this rhyming phrase. Some of it was rude, or racist or downright wrong. Whatever, Lincoln Chase’s song is often credited with taking it back & putting it out there. Lincoln Chase had written hit records in the 1950s & he became Shirley’s manager, producer & co-writer. He shortened her surname from Elliston & tailored the songs not only to suit her talent but make them stand out on the radio. There were follow ups to “Nitty Gritty” that failed but a year later she returned to a US Top 10 which had gotten better & included the Righteous Brothers, Joe Tex, Sam Cooke, the Kinks & the Temptations (Oh my !).

 

 

 

Image result for shirley ellis“The Name Game” is probably the best remembered of Shirley’s hits. It’s another witty ditty with a great percussive, insistent danceable arrangement. It’s fun, Tom Hanks plays it (“The Money Pit”), so does Jessica Lange (in “American Horror Story” & we still play it. “There isn’t any name that you can’t rhyme”. That’s true, just leave Chuck out of this !

 

The successor to “Name Game” gave Shirley an international hit. In the Summer of 1965 music was a big thing in the UK & I can remember kids in the street singing the rhythmic chant of “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap) ” which spent 6 weeks in our Top 10. The lyrics were borrowed from a 1930s song, you know it, everybody knows it…” Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line”. Lovely.

 

 

Image result for shirley ellisBy 1966 the time was right for a brand new beat. The emergence of Motown in Detroit & Stax in Memphis meant that it was getting mighty crowded in the R&B market & it took more than a cute novelty lyric to get a hit. Shirley failed to match the success of “The Clapping Song” with more simple rhymes & an ill-judged Xmas single. She signed to Columbia & the second single for her new label was the wonderful “Soul Time”. Lincoln Chase was less evident by now & the self-penned “Soul Time” will have you on the dance floor before the vocal comes in then keep you there through the 2-4-6-8-10 refrain. In the Casinos & Twisted Wheels of the north of England they kept the faith with Shirley but her time in the charts had passed & “Soul Time” failed to register as did the almost as groovy “Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling”. The one LP released by Columbia is hardly “Lady Soul” but Shirley’s confident vocals matched to upbeat arrangements make for an interesting listen.

 

Then that was it for Shirley Ellis, she retired from the music business. She’s now 76 & there are no clips of her getting right down on any of the golden oldie shows. As I said at the top of the page she is not mentioned alongside the outstanding female voices of the 1960s but she made a lot of memorable music, all of it enjoyable & all of it fun. I ain’t ever had too much Fun !

Mannish Boy (Steve Winwood/Spencer Davis Group)

Chris Blackwell founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 with a start-up stash provided by his wealthy family. He made records for the local scene, mostly singles, some of them hits. Blackwell was a bit of a toff, educated at Harrow, connected, with a shrewd eye for spotting talent. On returning to England in 1962 he was selling his records, licensed from Jamaica for UK release, from the back of his car to specialist shops serving the immigrant community. This niche market was his own, he expanded with other subsidiaries. Jump Up for Trinidad’s calypso, Sue cherry-picked American R&B, Black Swan, another reggae label. In 1964 he produced “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie, the most infectiously catchy song ever recorded & the first Bluebeat (the then current term for Jamaican music) international hit. Island’s finances couldn’t cover the ante for pressing half a million records, the record was released through a more established label. “…Lollipop” was Blackwell’s entry into the British music mainstream. In later years his label would be associated with some of the world’s biggest acts. Back in the Beat Boom he needed to find the right group because groups were where it was at in 1964.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis group 1964Up in Birmingham, at a jazz club in Great Barr, small audiences were being knocked out of their duffle coats by a piano-playing schoolboy prodigy. Stevie Winwood went along with his older brother Muff. At 14 he was already playing in the pick-up backing bands for US Blues artists. He & Muff hooked up with Spencer Davis in the Rhythm & Blues Quartette. Spencer was a face on the Brummie Blues scene as an artist, as someone who had things organised. For audiences & for Blackwell, on a visit to a local club, it was the precocious singer-organist  with a passion & range beyond his years who caught the eye & the ear. The Spencer Davis Group signed with Blackwell & he got them a record deal. There were 4 singles, covers of US R&B songs, three of them stalled just outside of the Top 40. “Their First LP” included more cover versions, good enough but in 1965 you needed a little more. Blackwell found the solution with another of his Jamaican roster. Jackie Edwards had travelled to England with the boss &, with a little imagination, one of his fine pop-soul songs did the trick. “Keep On Running” was released at the end of the year, nudged “Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out” from the #1 spot & ensured that 1966 would be a crazy year for 17 year old Steve Winwood & his older bandmates.

 

 

Image result for spencer davis somebody help me“Keep On Running” is a great shot of blue-eyed soul. Propelled & underpinned by Pete York’s drums & Muff’s terrific bass line, Steve is no longer imitating his African-American influences but sounding fresh, urgent & youthful. It appealed then & it still does now.There was another LP at the beginning of 1966, a little more Rhythm, a little less Blues, The group followed “Keep on…” with “Somebody Help Me”, another Jackie Edwards composition which enjoyed 2 weeks at the #1 spot. That first wave of R&B inspired bands were getting too cool for the teen scene. While they were off invading the New World there was room for new pop idols &, with 2 super smash hits, the Spencer Davis Group were kept busy by the star maker machinery.

 

Image result for spencer davis the who package tour 1966They gigged all over Britain & Europe (2 different places now apparently). There were the cool ones, 9 appearances at the Marquee Club in London, a Spring package tour with the Who & Jimmy Cliff sounds a good night out. 5 weekend shows at the North Pier Blackpool, y’know, for the kids, were the gravy you got for having hit records (on the 11th of September the other new sensations, Small Faces, were also on the South Pier). That month they starred in the film “The Ghost Goes Gear”, a forgettable piece of Beatsploitation, The year ended with a 2 week tour of Germany supporting Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich who were not as good as Tarantino thinks they were. With TV & radio commitments, interviewers asking him if he was Spencer Davis & what was his favourite colour, I’m sure that Steve found that being a pop star required more than just being a very talented musician.

 

While the band were filming the crappy movie there was yet another LP to be recorded. “Autumn 66” was their 3rd in a year & the pickings from their early repertoire were getting slim. The next 45 was another Jackie Edwards song. “When I Come Home” was co-written by Steve & it failed to reach the Top 10. In 1966 a Pop group was only as good as their last single , formulas quickly wore thin & there were new imaginative, inventive shiny things to attract attention. The Spencer Davis Group needed a boost, a new angle & Blackwell encouraged Steve to come up with his own material. The subsequent release went like this….

 

 

With one giant leap “Gimme Some Lovin'” moved Steve Winwood from Pop to Rock. He had a little help from a young American producer. Jimmy Miller came to Blackwell’s attention when he licensed a wailing New York soul belter, “Incense” by the Anglos. With Muff’s insistent driving bass, a riff borrowed from Homer Banks’ “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”, & Steve’s bluesy Hammond organ  Miller brought the same depth & urgency to “Gimme…”. It’s an instant classic, built to last even before the Blues Brothers brought it back to our attention in 1980. The Spencer Davis Group ended 1966 hotter than ever before, in the UK Top 10 & with the record about to break out in the US.

 

“I’m A Man, the following 45, another that everyone knows, had similar deserved success on both sides of the Atlantic.In 1967, for mostly better but sometimes worse, music got more serious & the audience went along with it. Steve, still only 18, wanted a taste of something new & felt that it wasn’t going to happen in the Spencer Davis Group. In April, after a UK tour with the Hollies, he & his brother left the band. Muff got a desk in Island’s office with Blackwell, Steve went off with friends from the Birmingham music scene to get it together in a cottage in Berkshire while a re-jigged S.D.G. played a week at the Fiesta nightclub in Stockton-on-Tees. The new band, Traffic, were studio-ready in weeks & before the year was out enjoyed 3 UK Top 10 hits all produced by Jimmy Miller & released on the Island label.

 

 

 

Image result for traffic bandWhile Traffic were, at first, looking for hit singles they were open to experiment & rapidly progressing. “Smiling Phases” was the B-side of the psych-novelty “Hole in My Shoe” & didn’t make it on to “Mr Fantasy” the debut LP. Steve Winwood, still a teenager, now had the artistic freedom to merge his Blues, Jazz & Folk influences with new sounds. He recorded with Jimi Hendrix, shared a stage with Eric Clapton & made his contribution to British Rock. I should get on to Traffic next because they were pretty good too.

 

 

 

 

The Stock Market For Your Hi Fi (UK Pop 1968)

In the UK in the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”, Procol Harum was the new big thing. Their debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the #1 record for 6 weeks. It’s faux-classical theme, portentous lyric & “progressive” sound caused quite a stir. I can remember grown men discussing the meaning of “16 vestal virgins” & the like. Get out of here, music was for young people. “A Whiter…” was replaced at the top spot by “All You Need is Love”, the Beatles’ coming out as hippies anthem. “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, reduced a whole generation’s new explanation to gloopy balladry. British pop music was growing out of its adolescence, musicians & their audience expected barriers to be broken, experiments to be undertaken. In 1964, the “Summer of Beat”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “It’s All Over Now” & “A Hard Day’s Night” had been consecutive #1 hits. Progress ?…It’s a rhetorical question.

 

1967 was the year that the LP became the thing to record & the thing to have. “All You Need is Love” was fine, you needed “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (June) more. Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” & Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” are classic 3 minute long pop 45s. “Are You Experienced” (May) & “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (August) gave you 40 minutes of this new good stuff. The generation who had been buying vinyl since the Mersey Mania were working now, had more disposable income, but what about their little sisters ? They were unconcerned about kissing the sky or gazing through trees in sorrow. They wanted to spend their pocket money on a 7″ single that they could dance to made by pretty young men who looked dreamy on a poster on their bedroom wall. It was a pop music tradition, it was their right & they gotta have it.

 

 

In January 1968 “Everlasting Love”, the 2nd single by Love Affair was the toppermost of the poppermost. The record was an all-guns blazing cover of a current Soul tune by Robert Knight. The band were teenagers, the drummer, who was the manager’s son, was only 15. I’m sure they all could play but CBS insisted that the single be re-recorded before release. Producer Mike Smith’s sweeping orchestral & brass arrangements only needed the participation of singer Steve Ellis, the Sunday papers made quite a front page fuss about this “deception”, as if Jimmy Page’s contributions to 70% of the records made in London had never happened. The little girls didn’t care about any credibility gap, the hit follow up used the same winning formula, “Rainbow Valley”, same composers, same steal from Robert Knight.

 

Of course I preferred the original version of “Everlasting Love”. The Top 10 of the day included the Beatles, the 4 Tops & Small Faces, much more my glass of Vimto. There was another manufactured group on the charts. The Monkees had been assembled for a TV show, they didn’t write songs or, at first, play on records which were well-crafted commercial pop music designed to sell by the truck load & successfully doing so.Love Affair’s young Mod singer, Steve Ellis, had a fine voice & Mike Smith produced 4 Top 10 hits for the group. He picked up on a new English songwriter, Phillip Goodhand Tait. “A Day Without Love” & “Bringing on Back the Good Times”, beefed up in Love Affair style are good songs. Smith had got it going on in January 1968, his novelty, sound effects laden “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde” for Georgie Fame succeeded “Everlasting Love” at #1. At the end of 1969 a change of style bombed & Ellis left the group. He formed his own band, Ellis, then Widowmaker but he would always be the kid that the little girls were screaming at while the rest of us sat cross-legged listening to our hair grow.

 

 

Amen Corner’s first single “Gin House Blues”, a song Bessie Smith recorded in 1928, was a favourite of John Peel, the champion of the new, serious music, now with a Sunday afternoon show on the new BBC Radio 1 station. A 7-piece from Wales they favoured Blues & Jazz, the twin horn section certainly helping out on the Soul covers. After 2 Top 20 hits Amen Corner’s big breakthrough was a bit of a surprise when they pulled an old British trick of grabbing an American hit before it crossed the Atlantic. “Bend Me Shape Me”, originally recorded by the solid garage-pop band the Outsiders (check them out), was a US chartbound sound for the American Breed. Producer Noel Walker, whose big hit of 1967 was “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” by Whistling Jack Smith (blimey !), tightened up the song, added punchy horns & got a top 3 hit for the boys. In one bound Amen Corner went from touring with Hendrix & Pink Floyd (some package tour that) to new teen sensations.

 

Once again the attention was on a teenage singer with a strong, distinct style. Andy Fairweather-Low was the poster boy of Amen Corner.The group had 3 more Top 10 hits, first with Deram, Decca’s increasingly cool offshoot, then joining Immediate, the label set up by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Of course, the formula, the screaming attention soon paled. After a stomping version of Roy Wood’s “Hello Susie” a Fairweather-Low produced cover of them Beatles’ “Get Back” failed to trouble the chart compilers & that was that. Andy formed Fairweather & had a fine solo career. I once heard Oldham asked why his label Immediate failed in 1970. He replied that it was because Fairweather-Low decided he wanted to be Jerry Garcia…hmmm.

 

 

Marmalade, unlike the other 2 groups, had knocked about a bit before 1968. As Dean Ford & the Gaylords they established a reputation as the top band in Scotland  but 4 singles for CBS in 1964-65 failed to make a national impression. By 1967 they were working with Mike Smith, the hitmaker, recording their own songs. “I See the Rain”, a pop-psych classic, was one of 4 unsuccessful Marmalade singles & CBS decreed that something better change..or else. Smith brought them “Lovin’ Things”, an American song rejected by another of his hit groups, the Tremeloes. It was given an uptempo brassy arrangement, there’s a pattern emerging here, & the group were in the Top 10. Ever since the Beatles invented British pop music the maxim “you’re only as good as your last single” spurred artists on to new heights of invention & excitement. That generation were, in 1968, working on their albums, those still reliant on chart position stuck with the familiar made-to-order, radio-friendly but  unchallenging pop. After a disappointing follow up to “Loving Things” Marmalade went for a very easy option & had a #1 hit.

 

“Ob-La Di, Ob-La-Da” Paul McCartney’s cod-Reggae novelty from the Beatles’ “White Album” was not released as a single in the UK so Marmalade nicked in with a cover version. This was no overhaul like Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from my Friends” more an insipid facsimile recalling the cheap copies of hits sold on the Embassy label in Woolworths. A #1 record…go figure ! The group were unhappy about recording other people’s songs & at the end of 1969 were able to secure a deal with Decca where they could produce themselves. Marmalade re-established themselves as capable soft-rockers with the songs of guitarist Junior Campbell & singer Dean Ford. In the next 3 years there were  more Top 10 hits. Life goes on…brah !

 

In 1968 I was more concerned with the new groups from California, Country Joe & the Fish, Big Brother & the Holding Co, you know them. In the UK Steve Winwood with “Traffic” & “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” by Small Faces were examples of how the teen idols of 1966 had adjusted to the expanding horizons of the music scene. I was dismissive of the prefabricated teeny popsters & things did not improve. In 1970 session man Tony Burrows provided vocals for 4 hits, the groups assembled when the records sold ! Now I can appreciate melodic, well-produced late-1960s pop made for an audience with different taste & demands from myself. Ah…I was so much older then…

 

 

I’m Gonna Cool You Cooks To Something (Joe Tex)

Joe Tex (Joseph Arrington Jr from down in Texas) was a sweet talking guy & he sure could sing. It took him 10 years of making records before his first big hit. “Hold  What You’ve Got” (1964) features 2 recitations, one to men, the other to women, with some down-to-earth advice about appreciating what’s at home. Joe was ready, there were 11 Top 20 R&B hits in the next 2 years. For the rest of the 1960s his music incorporated the changing styles & sounds of Soul music alongside his distinctive vocals & his good-humoured, congenial lyrics.

 

 

That first million seller was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the Southern Soul sound was being forged. It was a smart move by label owner-producer Buddy Killen & so was hitching his Dial Records to a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Joe’s records were in the shops & his name linked with the other members of the soul clan on that emerging major. He could write & perform those loquacious, folksy but never preaching,  ballads as well as anyone. Check “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”, that’s a great one. “The Love You Save” (see above) is the track chosen by Butterfly from a very cool jukebox in QT’s “Death Proof”. Joe could go with the flow, the swinging “S.Y.S.L.J.F.M.” recalls the Wicked Wilson’s “634-5789”, “Papa Was Too” takes it’s cue from King Otis & Queen Carla’s (Lowell Fulson’s ?) “Tramp”. His songwriting nous & brightness ensured that he kept it fresh.

 

Joe’s first release of 1967 missed the R&B Top 20. “Show Me” is a dancefloor ripper, the most basic of his songs. Along with “Knock On Wood” it was in the repertoire of every  bar & youth club band in the UK. Not a one of them was as tight as the opening number of the Joe Tex Show. Here’s the evidence…

 

 

1967 ended with Joe Tex’s 2nd million seller. “Skinny Legs & All” was from “Live & Lively”, a faux-live LP recorded at American Studio, Memphis. The added novelty element brought a crossover to the mainstream. Joe was a big deal with a reputation for a dynamic, hit-filled live show. It was 1969 before he crossed the Atlantic with his 9-piece band. Both Spanish & Swedish TV pointed cameras at the them &, while there may not be the electricity of the earlier Stax/Volt European tours, they preserved a pretty good record of a 1960s soul revue.

 

Joe was a big enough deal to continue a public feud with James Brown. Back in 1955 they were both on the King label & their paths often crossed. If it wasn’t a dispute about writing credits it was women or the stealing of stage moves by one or the other. When JB adopted the title “Soul Brother #1”, Joe called him out. In 1955 that title was held by Little Willie John & Joe saw no reason to recognise the new contender. In 1966 he became involved with The Soul Clan, initiated by Solomon Burke as an attempt to build an autonomous African-American business concern. The project lost impetus with the death of Otis Redding & Atlantic wanted hit records not to bankroll real estate deals. By the time any recordings were released Tex, Burke, Don Covay, Arthur Conley & Ben E King were not that close.

 

 

Joe recorded at all 3 points of the Southern music triangle. In 1968 he was in Nashville for his “Soul Country” LP. There’s just one of his own songs & some of the covers are a little uninspired. “Buying a Book” (1969) is more like it. A brilliant slice of Southern Country Soul, my personal choice of all his tracks & I wish I still had that Soul mixtape it was on.

 

In 1970 Joe was standing on the verge with getting it on with the Funk & George Clinton was listening to the groove of “You’re Right Ray Charles”, a song about the advice Brother Ray gave him back then. His final LP on the Dial/Atlantic deal was 1971’s “From the Roots Came the Rapper”, before roots & rappers were even invented. “I Gotcha” an Isley Brothers inflected slab of a song which made the “Reservoir Dogs” soundtrack, found him at #2 on the pop charts, dancing up a storm with a girl & a microphone stand on “Soul Train”.

 

 

Then Joe abruptly quit the music business. He had embraced Islam, following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, adopting the name Yusuf Hazziez. He returned to the studio with Buddy Killen after the death of Elijah &, in 1976, enjoyed a disco hit with “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)”. I don’t know the 1978 LP “He Who Is Without Funk Cast the First Stone” (1978) but that’s a good title. In 1980 there was an ill-planned reunion of the Soul Clan & unfortunately the next clan gathering was at Joe Tex’s funeral after a fatal heart attack in 1982, aged just 47.

 

Joe Tex was more than just the Clown Prince of Soul. His conversational, quick-witted singles sounded great on the radio at a time when there was a lot of fine Soul music around. His collected work, there are 25 on “The All Time Greatest Hits”, he wrote 24 of them, reflect the fast-changing times & taste of the audience. In a business which uses up & wears out the talent from 1965 to 1972 & then some more Joe was always around, always current & down with his bad self.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Woman Can Sing (Cool And Classy Sixties)

 

In 1965 if The Beatles asked then The Beatles got. The Fabs were making a TV show, “The Music of Lennon & McCartney”, for Granada TV. Their guests included Mersey mates from the NEMS stable, Brit popettes Marianne Faithfull & Lulu, Peter Sellers doing that Shakespearian “A Hard Day’s Night”. Also joining them was Esther Phillips, 15 years as a recording artist & appearing outside of the USA for the first time. In 1950, as “Little” Esther & just 14 years old, she enjoyed 7 Top 10 singles (3 at #1), 5 of them with “Blues” in the title. Miss Phillips had a tough ride in the Fifties. After a split with the influential Johnny Otis the hits didn’t come as easy as her addiction to heroin. It was 1962 before she had more success with covers of country songs.

“And I Love Him” was the title track of Esther’s first LP with Atlantic. Covering Beatles’ songs was a thing in 1965 &, as John Lennon says, this was one of their favourites. The gender-switching “Her” to “Him” was a stroke, the arrangement is spare, the vocal sophisticated & sensual, two things I knew little of when I was 12 but it sounded good then & it still does. Esther stuck around & in 1972 was with Kudu, an offshoot of jazz label CTI. “From A Whisper To A Scream” includes her version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, a sombre tale of addiction & it’s perfect. The whole LP is  treat, good songs arranged by Pee Wee Ellis, off of the James Brown Revue, played by stellar session men. Allen Toussaint’s title track & Marvin Gaye’s “Baby I’m For Real” are delights that I’m only just discovering.

 

In 1975 a discofied take on “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes”, a song made popular by her influence Dinah Washington, was a worldwide hit. She continued to record until 1984 when unfortunately, at the age of just 48, her hard-living past caused a much too early death. Esther Phillips had an individual voice which brought gritty quality to whatever material she was handed.

 

Of course in the mid-60s I was all about the Big Beat whether it was the energetic British take on Rock & Roll & the Blues or the new Motown sound that was calling out around the world. Everything that came before, the show business cabaret crooners, the vapid teen idols, trad jazz, was so over, stranded in the olden days by the new frontier of 60s modernity. (Yeah, I was so much older then…). Nancy Wilson’s cool supper club jazz stylings were absolutely off my radar but “The Girl With The Honey Coated Voice”, “Fancy Miss Nancy”, found a receptive audience with her interpretations of stage & screen standards. In 1963 her 4 LPs all reached the US Top 20.

 

The following year her single “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” claimed the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording though she thought it was a pop song & there’s still a touch of jazz. No labels just classy, urban & urbane. This is so cosmopolitan I want to smoke a pastel coloured Sobranie…& like it. Ms Wilson seized the time, a guest on many US TV shows as a singer & an actress. She has continued to sing her stories, always warm, effortless, & elegant, always popular. It is more than her longevity that has made her a Jazz great. If you are so inclined check her performances from the early 1960s when she was young, assured, drop-dead gorgeous & straight from the fridge.

 

 

And then came Dionne Warwick. We knew that our own Cilla Black had pinched a UK hit off her by getting in early with a cover of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” but Dionne came right back with her first single of 1964 “Walk On By”. Her partnership with songwriters/producers Bacharach & David, from 1962 to 1971 was irresistible. At Scepter Records they were given the freedom to create definitive versions of original instant classics. The productions were often sparse, leaving Dionne’s soulful voice to do that thing she does. My favourites, the eerie “Walk On By”, the quirky drumbeat of “You Can Have Him” (not a B & D song) & the perfect “Are You There (With Another Girl)”. There were 31 Top 40 hits for the trio in this time.

 

Dionne had 5 million reasons for leaving Scepter in 1971 & though Bacharach & David followed her to Warner Bros they ended their songwriting relationship the following year. She worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland, Jerry Ragovoy & Thom Bell but, apart from “Then Came You”, recorded with the Spinners, the hits were fewer & smaller. Ms Warwick was not ready to join the golden oldie circuit. A generation of musicians & composers had learned about well-crafted pop music from her records & were only too pleased to work with her. Similarly listeners had grown up with her too. There was more success, of female singers only Aretha Franklin has had more hits. Dionne Warwick is a legend. A few years ago I hit upon copies of her Greatest Hits Vol I & II, released on Wand, a Scepter subsidiary in 1970. It was payday & they turned out to be in mint condition…a result. Both records are quality from start to finish, filling the house with the beautiful noise of the best of swinging sixties sophistication.

 

 

Change Is Now (The Byrds Part 3)

The initial recording sessions for the Byrds 5th LP were unsettled & confused. David Crosby was a Niagara of creativity but seemed to have little consideration for the contributions & intentions of his 3 associates. It appeared that Crosby was looking for a way out &, in October 1967 he was gone. There was conflict & dissatisfaction with the attitude & ability of drummer Michael Clarke. He was out too, only to return then leave the group on the completion of the record. Still, as we always say down at the Freemasons Lodge, “ordo ab chao”, out of chaos comes order.Despite the problems the 2 remaining Byrds, Roger (formerly Jim) McGuinn & Chris Hillman with producer Gary Usher, did not drop the ball. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”, an experimental, ethereal, beautiful record was released in January 1968.

Now this is a strange one. “Goin’ Back” was released as a single 3 months before “Notorious…” was ready. Clarke was still around but the Byrds were reduced to a trio & that really wouldn’t fly (ouch!). To promote “Goin’ Back” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” they called up Gene Clark, who had left the band in 1966, to make up the numbers. Gene was still signed to Columbia but his LP with the Gosdin Brothers had not sold well. He co-wrote a song, played a couple of gigs, added some backing vocals & hung around for all of 3 weeks. Crosby had not wanted to record this Goffin & King song, he wanted to leave the jingle-jangle behind. An early lethargic take does lack inspiration but McGuinn had an appreciation of how the Byrds had got to where they were, what was expected by their audience & he was right. “Goin’ Back” is a  yearning for a lost innocence, a Rickenbacker infused reverie, a trademark sound still appropriate to their new music.

 

“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” was recorded across the release of “Sergeant Pepper’s…”.The bar was raised whether you were a musician on a bubblegum pop assembly line or were jamming in a Haight Ashbury crash pad. It was no longer enough for an LP to consist of a couple of hit singles & some quickly recorded knock-off soundalikes. You had to mean it ma’an. The same folk, country & jazz tinges present on “Fifth Dimension” & “Younger Than Yesterday” were still around . Gary Usher’s use of brass, strings &, more importantly, the Moog synthesiser moved the sound forward, creating a depth, an atmosphere which tied the whole thing together, brought a unity to the collection. A future member of the group spoke of his ambition to create a Cosmic American Music. He was too late, the Byrds got there on “Notorious”. Change Is Now.

 

 

Man, it’s tough to choose just 3 tracks from this LP. “Old John Robertson”, a country tear up moving into the baroque with strings & phasing, all in 1 minute 49 seconds.would be the choice of 2 of my associates but they are not here right now. “I Wasn’t Born To Follow”, another Goffin/King song, became a hippie anthem when it hooked up with Captain America & Billy for a spot of easy riding in “Easy Rider”. The introductory “Artificial Energy”, an amphetamine song which gets dark in the final verse, didn’t raise the controversy that “Eight Miles High” had. The moral panic had gone to San Francisco. For myself, only the closing sea shanty sci-fi “Space Odyssey” fails to make the cut.

David Crosby’s prints are still all over this record. He has 3 co-credits on the songwriting & appears on 5 of the 11 tracks. Crosby’s cutting-edge ideas about harmony & the lyrical content of his songs were sometimes too far out for his fellow band members but inspired them to experiment & develop. “Draft Morning” follows an inductee to the battlefields of Vietnam. Crosby’s lyrics were re-modelled by McGuinn & Hillman & he was not pleased. Now we know those ins & outs, the ups & downs. Then, we just had a stirring, beautiful song.The record had the 3 remaining Byrds & a horse on the cover. Roger McGuinn denied that this was a jibe at Crosby. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he ?

 

 

“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is the most psychedelic of all the Byrds’ LPs, the last triumph of the original group that started all that folk-rock in 1965 with “Mr Tambourine Man”. There is not the harshness of acid-rock, it’s spaced-out, tripping on a sunny day by the lake with friends. A new wave of young groups were growing their hair & sporting hippy plumage while the Byrds ditched the moptops & dressed down. No longer at the centre of American popular music but not yet ready to be filed with the golden oldies. It was a turbulent time for the group, Roger McGuinn & his steadfast sidekick Chris Hillman had been knocked about a bit. They kept an eye on where it had all begun, omitted their more far out investigations & created assured, modern music which sounded great in 1968 & still does today & tomorrow. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”…get on it.

Sweet Soul Music (William Bell)

William Bell never achieved the success of some of his Memphis contemporaries but his contribution as a singer & a songwriter places him at the heart of the enduring soul music created in that city throughout the 1960s. In 1961 Bell, just 21 years old, stepped away from his vocal group, the Del Rios, to record a self-written solo debut for his hometown label Stax Records. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a smooth sliver of country soul before that was even a thing. In 1967 the song was  recorded by Stax’ shining star, Otis Redding & included on his “Otis Blue” LP. The following year The Byrds released their version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” & Taj Mahal his for “The Natch’l Blues”. 3 distinctive records linked by this immaculate song.

“You Don’t…” made a small dent on the US charts, the following 45, “Any Other Way”, was picked up by established R&B singer Chuck Jackson. For a small label this was a big enough deal for Stax to release a number of  William’s singles. He was away for 2 years in the armed forces which didn’t help with promotion & publicity. On his return to Memphis he began a string of recordings which were R&B hits but which never really matched the crossover success of other studio colleagues. In this golden time the Memphis Soul stew was cooking on gas. Now, over 45 years later, William Bell’s best records take a place alongside all those other Stax solid senders.

Bell’s stock in trade ballads had a sweet gospel tinge. Booker T’s sympathetic productions allowed a lightness not always associated with the trademark attack in the sound of Stax. “The Soul of a Bell” (1967) marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership between the pair. The opening track “Everybody Loves A Winner” is a tragic song of life, a lovely example of the thing that William Bell did so well…”but when you lose, you lose alone”. Ah, Gram Parsons should have gotten hold of this song with the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Eloise (Hang On In There)”, a soul stomp, Motown urgency filtered through the layers of Memphis grit, had to be the one to break on through. Like another muscular Stax release, “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd, “Eloise” made no impression on the charts but it shook my radio whenever it came around. A hit 45 that just never was one.

It was around this time that guitarist Albert King was signed by Stax. Bell & Jones provided a song that captured all the bad luck & trouble of the Blues while putting this folk music on Soul Time. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was an instant classic. Eric Clapton had always checked for Albert & a year later Cream, with encouragement from Atlantic Records, covered the song on their #1 LP “Wheels Of Fire”. King found a new audience for the Blues in America’s concert halls. Up in Chicago the Chess label encouraged Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf to update their sound. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a landmark song.

When Stax tragically lost it’s greatest star in December 1967 William Bell marked Otis Redding’s death with “A Tribute To A King”. Only a B-side in the US, we Brits were more receptive to this heartfelt elegy from his musical family & it dented the charts. Another Bell- Jones composition, “Private Number”, a sweet, smooth dialogue with Judy Clay, less raucous than the Otis & Carla Thomas duets, made the UK Top 10 with no transatlantic promotion trip (so unfortunately no black & white Top of the Pops clip) & is still a sure fire winner to my ears. The follow up, “My Baby Specializes” (mostly Judy) was an Isaac Hayes-David Porter song. There was an LP of “Duets” with Clay, Carla Thomas & Mavis Staples. William Bell was a busy man in 1968.

He began to produce records for Peachtree Productions. I have a version of “Purple Haze” by Johnny Jones & the King Casuals, a crazy collision of soul & psychedelia. I did not know that it was Bell’s debut production for the company. It’s on the Y-tube, treat yourself. It was in 1968 that he had his biggest hit so far. “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a gorgeous tender gem. Steve Cropper’s guitar, a cascade of strings, the Memphis Horns…oh yeah ! Down in Jamaica Lee “Scratch” Perry was creating all manner of wonderful dub reggae strangeness at his Black Ark studio. Scratch always had an ear for a well-written song. Through 1976/77 he recorded a number of soul classics with singer George Faith & that’s how William Bell & Booker T Jones’ “To Be A Lover” stands as a reggae classic. The almost 20 minute long version, including Augustus Pablo’s mellifluous melodica, is a desert island disc of mine but, hey, you are busy people.

William Bell moved to Atlanta but stayed with Stax to the end in 1974. Public taste had changed but there are some classy songs from this time. A move to Mercury finally brought him a gold record in 1977 with “Trying To Love Two”, a disco-fication of his trademark ballad sound. Despite the song reaching the top of the R&B charts there seems to be contemporary clip of him performing the song on “Soul Train…if only.

With the formation of Wilbe Records he has continued to record himself & others.There was never the one big breakthrough song for Bell. No “Knock On Wood”, “Sweet Soul Music” Or “When A Man Loves A Woman” that put faces to the names of other singers. He was not on the bill for the momentous Stax/Volt tours of Europe & there is no film of the young William Bell. So this clip, from 2013, gets me buzzing. It’s from a Memphis Soul special, after dinner entertainment at the White House for the Obama’s & a few close friends.  There was a stellar line-up, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper (Huh !) for the audience to rattle their jewellery to. Seeing 70-odd year old William Bell singing “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, knocking the song that started it all for him out of the park & sharing the stage with Booker T Jones, his songwriting partner who shared in the inception of so much fine music, just makes me smile.

 

 

Coming To You On A Dust Road (Sam and Dave Double Dynamite)

So where the heck did this come from ? The Y-tube clips of Sam & Dave’s turbo-charged live act are just the greatest thing. The dynamic duo’s great run of hit singles received plenty of exposure at the time which we are lucky enough to still have around. Then there’s this gem, a promo for a song that was never actually promoted.

As Mod as anything ! “I Don’t Need Nobody (To Tell Me About My Baby)” is a track from “Double Dynamite”,  Sam & Dave’s 2nd LP for Stax Records. The record was not as successful as their debut “Hold On  I’m Coming” or the succeeding “Soul Men” but it included 3  high quality 45s (“When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”…oh my !) which kept their name in the frame. This track was not 1 of the 3, not even, I think, a B-side. Written by Randle Catron, a Memphis personality, a future king of the local Cotton Jubilee, it’s not the usual dynamic call & response belter rather a sweet soul swinger. The guys look as sharp as a winter’s morning & the girls, dancing barefoot, are just the epitome of 1966/67 chic. 6 months later there would be dashikis, afros & a liquid light show. I think that I prefer this cool, casual look. Straight from the fridge.

Sam Moore & Dave Prater hooked up in Miami & were recording for Roulette Records before they were signed to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler who already had a connection to Stax Records in Memphis. The duo, like most every R&B act in the early 1960s, were on that Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Little Willie John thing but Atlantic wanted the raw, harder recipe that Booker T & the M.Gs were cooking up. They were lloaned to Stax,  assigned to the young staff songwriters Isaac Hayes & David Porter & once the 3rd single, “Hold On I’m Coming” reached the Top 30 there was a string of thoroughbred hit songs tailored to their new distinctive, urgent style.

Of course “Soul Man” was the big one in 1967. I would play that 45 on repeat. There’s a little drum break in there that still rocks me, so that’s Al Jackson. As the song says “Play it Steve !”, so that’s Steve Cropper. Earlier that year the Stax Volt Review had toured Europe & thrilled audiences. Similarly the artists were galvanized by an exposure to a, mostly white, audience they had previously been unaware of. After “Soul Man” Sam & Dave were in the major league back home. Here they bring the soul revue experience to the Ed Sullivan Show & how much fun is this ? “I Thank You”, the most basic of their singles was another big hit. Prime time TV could never capture the lightning of their live show but the fanciest horn section, all 9 of them, give it plenty & make their appearance special.

The loss of Stax’ superstar Otis Redding hit the label hard. Musicians & writers, especially Steve Cropper & Booker T Jones, were less content to live in the studio at East Macklemore Avenue, judged by the quantity of records sold rather than the quality of the music. The next  year, 1968, the “gentleman’s agreement” between Stax & Atlantic was revealed to be weighed against the good guys. As a consequence  Sam & Dave’s loan period ended . They returned to Atlantic & were never as popular with a wider audience again. The Sullivan Show gig was to promote “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar” which, despite being their biggest UK hit, always seemed to me to be one of the weakest of their releases. Still, what do I know ? The storming 1968 single “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me” , written by Cropper & Eddie Floyd, was#1 in my heart in a time when there were plenty of rivals for my affections. The song came nowhere in Britain & just made Top 50 in the US.

This story does not have a happy ending. The duo’s records made in New York never recaptured the Memphis magic. Their often volatile relationship led to a temporary split, the punters wanted Sam & Dave not Sam OR Dave. Sam Moore’s affection for heroin didn’t help. When he added coke to the mix his $400 dollar a day habit meant that he was working for the monkey on his back. There was always work. They opened for the Clash on a 1979 tour, Jake & Elwood Blues, a Sam & Dave tribute act revived interest too. By the time Sam did clean up Dave had hired another Sam & a lot of lawyers became involved. Dave was prematurely killed in a car accident in 1988. Sam has stuck around & he is just great.

I’m going to end this with something I found on like page 9 of a “Sam & Dave live” Y-tube trawl (you have got to go deep, just in case). It’s film of the most successful soul duo ever doing what they did better than anyone else, performing live. It is shot, I think, on that first Stax tour of Europe when the acts were backed by Booker T & the M.Gs & the Mar Keys, Stax’ A-team. I’ve never seen this before (33 views…that’s nuts !). A small sweaty club, the cameraman apparently sat in Booker T’s lap.  “Of all the R & B cats, nobody steams up a place like Sam & Dave ” (Time). “Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquefy, I just don’t feel right without it.” (Sam Moore). The clip is 10 minutes long & I know that you are all busy people but it’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know”, “Hold On I’m Coming” & it really is a wonderful, relentless & irresistible thing.

Jingle-Jangle Morning (The Early Byrds)

In the spring of 1965 the American record buying public was in thrall to the British Beat. In April & May there were #1 records for Herman’s Hermits (twice !), Freddie & the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders &, of course, the Beatles. I know… the Stones, the Who & the Kinks were only just getting started. England was swinging like a pendulum do while the US of A didn’t yet know what time it was. In June there was a Motown led comeback. The Supremes had, wonderfully, their 5th successive chart-topper. That 4 Tops’ Sugar Pie & Honeybunch combination proved irresistible …still does. The Beach Boys were around too with their great songs about cars & girls & surfing. They were in that striped shirt phase, between the plaid Pendletons & the Good Vibrations.Well groomed young men, clean cut music. In the first week of July “Mr Tambourine Man” by the Byrds marked America’s coming to terms with the new Mod squad which had so entranced the youth. The first US group with hair over their ears to have a #1 hit.

It was a simple plan quite beautifully executed. Bob Dylan, the folk singer,that’s the man, had “gone electric” earlier in 1965, an act of treason according to the keepers of folk’s traditional beards. You know. old people, like over-25s. Me, I was a new teenager when I bought my first Dylan LP. “Another Side of …” may have been an acoustic record but we knew that the 23 year old was writing rock & roll songs. John Lennon’s “I’m A Loser”, on “Beatles For Sale” showed the influence he was already having on pop music. “Mr Tambourine Man” is from the “folk” side of “Bringing It All Back Home”. The addition of a 12-string Rickenbacker jangle & some harmony vocals, the cutting of 3 of the 4 poetic verses, made for an instant pop classic. On the Byrds debut LP producer Terry Melcher applied this formula to 4 Dylan tunes &, I guess, invented folk-rock. They helped to make a quality record.

Master publicist Derek Taylor attempted to manoeuvre the Byrds into the centre of Los Angeles/Hollywood cool but these were different days. The group were quickly swept up by the “America’s Beatles” tag. They were teen idols, smiling their way through TV appearances & photo shoots. Guitarist Jim McGuinn wore his “granny” glasses, David Crosby had his cape. Blonde drummer, Michael Clarke was the best Brian Jones lookalike in the country while bassist Chris Hillman’s straightened moptop still makes me laugh. Another Dylan song “All I Really Want To Do” was chosen as the follow up despite Cher’s version having a head start. Ms Sarkisian had probably pinched the Dylan cover idea but she had the biggest hit. Maybe the Byrds should have gone with this B-side because it does kinda rock.

Gene Clark was the other singer in the group. He was a songwriter too. There were 5 of his songs on that debut LP. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” ,well, as the song goes “probably”, shows that the Byrds did not rely exclusively on Dylan for a folk foundation to their rocking music. “Feel…” became another classic tune. The Flamin’ Groovies & Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers both recorded good, respectful covers, versions that will get you singing along, that aim for but just don’t hit that Spirit of 1965 bullseye. However Jim sang lead on the Dylan songs & on the title track of the follow up, Pete Seeger’s folk anthem “Turn, Turn,Turn”, another #1 hit. Jim took centre stage among the frantically frugging go-go girls, in front of the screaming fans, while Gene was out on the side, the tambourine man.

“Turn, Turn, Turn” included 2 more Dylan covers & 3 songs by Clark. The Beatle-y “She Don’t Care About Time” made only the B-side of  the”Turn…” 45, not the LP. “Set You Free This Time” was the Byrds first single of 1966 & it failed to reach the Top 50. Within a month Columbia were promoting the flipside, “It Won’t Be Wrong”, a McGuinn song. Gene wrote songs about a sad & beautiful world, gentle, poignant things that added substance to the group’s LPs. It seemed, & was perhaps confirmed over the next decade, that his individual voice & talent did not appeal to a mass audience.

It was around this time that the Byrds finally got paid for their success. Young men who, 18 months earlier, were just glad to hear their record on the radio learned some things about the music business. Gene wrote the songs & he was the guy arriving at the studio in a red Ferrari. Both McGuinn & Crosby were beginning to assert their own strong personalities & to find the pop treadmill a little old. Check the clip for that single, David in Jim’s glasses & Jim in the cape ! They were both beginning to write songs of their own too. It could have been jealousy which kept Clark’s songs off the LP, it could have been that there were just too many songs. Whatever, by the end of February 1966 Gene Clark was out of the Byrds. The authorised version was that his Pteromerhanophobia made travel too difficult. I didn’t buy that as a 13 year old kid & I don’t believe it now.

Gene went off & played a major part in inventing country rock. He & Doug Dillard’s “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark” is a triumph. The now 4 piece Byrds knew that change was needed if they were to avoid the built-in obsolescence  of pop. “Fifth Dimension” was released in July 1966, the band were more involved in the writing & there were no Dylan covers. The LP covers a range of styles, folk, country. space rock, raga rock (gotta have a label). The pivotal song was written mostly by Gene on the group’s 1965 UK tour (where the press battered the Byrds for even presuming any comparison to our Fab Four). “Eight Miles High” moved folk-rock forward towards psychedelia, got itself banned on the radio & moved the Byrds into a new musical chapter.

 

 

 

 

 

That Girl Could Sing (USA 1967)

I was checking for solo female singers of the 1960s. Over here in the UK we still love the topnotch ternion, Dusty (the greatest), Cilla (uncool now, impeccable Beatle cred then) & Sandie (hooray !). There are other contenders, Lulu, Pet, Marianne. Francoise Hardy was as cool as & still is. In the New World it is the soul sisters who carry the swing, Aretha, Dionne, Diana & plenty more. Beat groups & pretty boy teen idols were the current thing, women pop stars were scarce. Brenda Lee was of the generation before the Sixties swung, at the end of the decade poor Janis was just getting going & then she was gone. In between there was Nancy Sinatra, Cher & … ? I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect & you knew that. Here are 3 talented women who were making the scene in 1967.

Jackie DeShannon, as you can see, was blimmin’ gorgeous. A real swinging chick. Jackie has quite a story to tell. She was very young when she entered the business of show & her path crossed many interesting & talented people.Before her support gig on the first Beatles tour of the US in 1964 she had already been recording for 8 years under various tags with little success. In that British Invasion year another Liverpool link put her name in the frame when the Searchers hit big with a cover of her single “Needles & Pins”, a song written by Sonny Bono & Jack Nitzsche. The same combo turned Jackie’s own song, the pop-folk “When You Walk In The Room” into a folk rock prototype. In 1965 she picked up a Bacharach & David written hit with “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. By this time Jackie was only in Swinging London, only writing songs (& having a thing) with only Jimmy Page.

Here in 1967 Jackie is cool & classy, lip-synching to 2 often covered R&B classics, James Ray’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” & Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game”. Songs that she has co-written have been recorded by so many varied artists. She wrote many tunes with the talented Sharon Sheeley, the girlfriend of Eddie Cochran. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” put her back in the Top 10. There’s one with Van Morrison & there is “Bette Davis’ Eyes”. If there was a Songwriters’ Hall of Fame then Jackie DeShannon would be in it. Oh, there is & she is !

In 1967 Bobbie Gentry’s debut LP knocked “Sgt Pepper’s…” from the top of the US LP charts. 23 year old Bobbie wrote 9 of the record’s 10 tracks & the distinctive “Ode To Billie Joe”  became a world wide hit. “Ode…” is a finely detailed song, a dark tale of suicide & mysterious things thrown from bridges combined with a loping, swampy Mississippi rhythm. It’s sophisticated for a pop song & while Ms Gentry was no Flannery O’Connor, her Southern Gothic-lite narrative made her quite the big deal. Here she is performing “Niki Hoeky”, a song by the great country-soul maverick Jim Ford, on prime time TV. The choreography is a little Hmmm but Bobbie looks comfortable with it & midrifftastic.

Y’know, a barefoot Mississippi minstrel, T-shirt & jeans, an acoustic guitar, that young woman on the 1st LP cover, could have been just what the music world needed in 1967. In a couple of years Joni Mitchell & Carole King were superstar singer-songwriters…a new thing. By then Bobbie’s music had got a little more country, her hair a little higher. She moved to the middle of the road with an LP of duets with Glen Campbell. In 1970 she had a #1 hit in the UK with that sure-fire winner for a woman singer, a Bacharach & David original, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Bobbie was an international star, she had her own show in Las Vegas but less commercial success. In 1972 the Tallahatchie Bridge, off of the song, collapsed, Gentry had released 4 LPs in the previous year but there would be no more after these. She was now picking her gigs & eventually walked away from the business. In popular culture everything comes round again, gets a rewind & a revival, Bobbie Gentry’s work could certainly stand it but she was not that bothered…that’s cool.

Over on the West Coast, if you were going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. For 3 days in June the Monterey Pop Festival showcased the new Californian musical aristocracy while introducing Otis Redding & Jimi Hendrix to the “love crowd”. New female stars like Grace Slick with Jefferson Airplane & Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company were front of stage taking the spotlight from their fellow male band members. The festival marked only the second major performance by a 19 year old singer-songwriter who was strictly East Coast. Laura Nyro’s melting pot roots reflected those of her New York birthplace. Her musical influences were of a similarly wide range. She regarded her Monterey appearance to be a disaster. Whether any booing was real or imagined Laura was affected by the occasion. There is certainly a callow fragility about  this rather amazing rendition of  “Poverty Train” but there is a whole lot of other shaking going on. Jazz, blues, gospel, soul, folk were all there, it sounded like music for the future.

It became a thing to take Laura’s songs, smooth off the spiky edges & make hit records out of them. There were 4 hits, 3 in the Top 10, from the debut record, “More Than A New Discovery”. The following record provided 3 more. Laura Nyro was a songwriting prodigy, a new Jimmy Webb. The 5th Dimension, a classy harmony group, loved to make these songs a little more radio-friendly. “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, you know those…lovely. There was a record a year until 1971, 4 LPs of personal, passionate, adventurous compositions. “Eli & the 13th Confession” & “New York Tendaberry” need to be heard. It’s the sound made by a young intelligent woman who spent a long time listening to the best music of the 20th century then, with the fine sense of the free-spirited 1960s, was able to synthesize her own  individual style.I found her music to be much more interesting than the folk singers who were coming up after Joni. Laura Nyro seemed to me like a young Nina Simone. That is high praise, here’s more from Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “Runt” LP.

After such an abundant spell her next record was a tribute to the girl-group sounds that she had grown up with in New York. “Gonna Take A Miracle” was made with Labelle. It’s more traditional than her other LPs but the songs are covered with love & respect & it really is a lovely thing. There was though still no major commercial breakthrough. Laura Nyro got married & took 5 years away from recording. The years when she had been so innovative & prolific were over. She unfortunately suffered an untimely death in 1997 when, at just 49, she contracted ovarian cancer.

These 3 very capable women provide just a snapshot into the American music scene in 1967. Jackie DeShannon, already established, had a long & successful songwriting career. The other 2, beginning their passage & experiencing initial acceptance, were both unable to find a position in the business where they felt comfortable. They both walked away at a time when there was still potential for creative development. Now I’m not the guy to expound a theory about sexual objectification, discrimination & stereotyping in a male dominated music industry. I am the guy who would have liked to have heard Bobbie Gentry go back to her Delta roots & to hear Laura Nyro’s music mature as she did…and I can be particular about what I listen to.