Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Soul April 69)

So the Billboard R&B charts from 1969 Episode IV …a new hope indeed. I’ve not looked ahead but this series is sure to run & run, the only problem with finding 3 (the magic number) tunes to feature is which ones to leave out. April 1969 looks like being the best month yet & I’m pretty sure that it’s going to have to be 4 selections this time around. I’m teasing…it’s 4. So, let’s start at the very beginning with the #1 R&B record of the day.

 

 

Image result for isley brothers concert poster“It’s Your Thing”, still a wow after 50 years, still a fresh & funky anthem. When , in 1966, the trio,  Rudolph, O’Kelly & Ronald, signed with Tamla Motown they had already been making records for 10 years. Things started well & their first LP, largely overseen by Motown’s A Team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, included the immaculate “This Old Heart of Mine”. The group knew how the music business worked & felt that subsequent songs & promotion provided by the label were not from the top shelf. Here in the UK we knew the original recordings of “Shout”, a hit for Lulu & of course “Twist & Shout”. We loved their Motown stuff & judicious re-releases brought the Isleys 4 Top 20 hits in 1968-9. How in the heck the label & the USA had missed out on the thunderous “Behind A Painted Smile” remains a mystery.

 

Image result for isley brothers it's your thingAfter a successful UK tour they decided that they should do what they wanna do, left Motown & resurrected, unused since 1964, T-Neck, their own label. With their own songs, their own production/arrangements & their kid brother, 16 year old Ernie on bass the Brothers showed that they had not only been listening to Sly & the Family Stone & James Brown but they absolutely got the new Funk. The family that played together took their New Thing, a surefire smash, a Grammy Award winner, ran with it & refined a style based around Ronald’s distinctive vocals & Ernie’s prominent lead guitar. The group’s time came in 1973 when the “3+3” album began an unbroken run of gold & platinum selling records which lasted into the next decade. There are landmark songs across their long career & “It’s Your Thing” is a pivot between Isley Soul & Isley Funk.

 

 

Image result for joe Tex advertBetween numbers 30-40 there is a cluster of newcomers to the chart. The Impressions, Percy Sledge, Ann Peebles & the Meters are favourites of mine, all of them over there on those shelves, but it’s the highest new entry of the week, in at #30, that makes the cut. Since “Hold What You’ve Got”, his breakthrough hit in 1964, Joe Tex made a lot of records that scored on the R&B charts without crossing over to the mainstream. “I Want To (Do Everything For You)” & “A Sweet Woman Like You” both made #1. None of his 14 Top 20 discs between 1964-68 troubled the UK chart compilers, we even missed “Skinny Legs & All” but we knew who he was. Every local British Soul band included “Show Me” in their set & many of them attempted “S.Y.S.L.J.F.M.”.

 

Image result for joe tex buying a bookThere’s an attractive genial good humour in the records of Joe Tex. He could rip up the dance floor then switch to a fine line of semi-spoken homilies, all delivered with a chuckle in his warm voice. I’d compare him to a Southern preacher but his advice could often concern rather earthy matters. “Buying A Book” has been a particular favourite since its inclusion on a home-made mixtape (from the radio, remember that?) which, in the early 1980’s, reminded me just how much I loved classic Soul music. This story of the perils of May to September romances remains so because it’s such a well put together record, the brass, the backing vocals & Joe Tex telling it like he sees it. Great stuff.

 

 

 

On the chart that keeps on giving there are names on the labels on the songs between 41 & 50 that are legendary. At #50 Sly & the Family Stone had “Stand” backed with “I Want to Take You Higher”, a show-stopper at the Woodstock Festival later in 1969. #43 was none other than Howlin’ flipping Wolf! “Evil” was from an album that matched the great Bluesman with younger musicians, a formula that his label Chess had previously used for Muddy Waters. Mr Wolf thought the record was “dog shit” (“Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake – on your way to the barber shop?”) but it’s so great to see Chester Burnett’s name on the list among Archie Bell & the Drells & Bobby Womack. At #46 was an extraordinary song by Nina Simone & if you think I’m able to knock out a couple of crisp paragraphs capturing her magnificence then you must be crazy!

 

Related imageBack in the mid-1960’s, when it came to female vocalists, I was all about Dusty & Aretha. I’d hear Ella or Billie & knew that there had been something special going on before then. Nina Simone’s Jazz & Broadway standards seemed to be for an audience more mature than myself but as she included more contemporary material on her records it became apparent that the “High Priestess of Soul” had a talent to inhabit & express emotion in song like few others. I bought her live “Black Gold” LP (1970) with her interpretation of “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life”, the best thing to come out of the shoddy, sensationalist musical “Hair”. There’s a 10 minute version of the celebratory “Young, Gifted & Black” & a chilling, perfect exegesis of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”. Nina Simone’s music, its forthright integrity on record & in live performance, continues to thrill. Many people make great music, not so many make great Art.

 

Image result for nina simone revolution“Revolution” is Nina Simone’s take on the Beatles’ (John Lennon’s) song of the same name. It keeps the same structure, the “It’s gonna be alright” & that’s about it. It’s not an “answer” record more an indication that pacifist idealism, a white millionaire imagining no possessions & that all you need is love, is less of an option if you are young, gifted & black living in a racist society where “the only way that we can stand in fact is when you get your foot off our back”. Written by Nina & her bandleader Weldon Irvine the swinging studio version, with a Sunday morning choir & a discordant ending, is a powerful statement. This strong live version, an excerpt from her performance at 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts celebrating the best of African-American music, features her terrific backing unit. Conscious music, an irresistible groove & Nina Simone, these are a few of my favourite things.

 

 

Image result for james carr to love somebodyI am not the biggest fan of the Bee Gees. At the height of their Disco dominance a British comedy group released the parody “Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices” & that still raises a smile. It is undeniable that the Gibb brothers have written some very good songs, Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is a perfect thing & shows just how soulful they could be. At #44 on the chart was James Carr with a song apparently written for Otis Redding. I’ve not heard all of the many cover versions of “To Love Somebody” but have long thought that it is difficult to mess up such a well-crafted song. Released in 1967 it was soon picked up by American artists. The Sweet Inspirations, the best backing vocalists of the time were first, it was the title track of a Nina Simone LP & the great James Carr was the one who did bring it to Memphis. I feel that I’ve gone on a little too long today but I couldn’t leave April 1969 behind without including a favourite Soul singer of mine & a fine record. If you are interested I wrote about the complicated life of James Carr here. OK I can’t wait to see what May brings.

Gigi Mac’s Cool Chicks For Black History Month (Part 10)

 

Lisa Hanna, B: August 20, 1975

Does anybody remember this?

Q: “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?”

A: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uhmmm, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and uh, I believe that our, I, education like such as uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uhhh, our education over here in the US should help the US, uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.”

…yes, that happened… maaan, I so wanted to give Miss South Carolina a tender hug during that moment, with a ‘shhh shh shh shhh shhhhhh…’

 

Sometimes pageants don’t go so well… and sometimes, they produce women like the Honourable Lisa Rene Shanti Hanna. Lisa was crowned Miss World in 1993, representing the sunny isle of [where??] JAMAICA! That went well enough— appearances on behalf of the Island for global events, cameos in a couple of movies, even a broadcasting gig, and various mid-profile communications positions back home in JA. Very smart young lady too, with a political and socio-economic bent, even well before competing at 18. So, let’s fast forward to 2011. After winning a seat & becoming a member of Jamaican Parliament in 2007– one of the youngest women to hold a seat, Lisa parlayed that position to be appointed Minister of Youth and Culture on the Island when her party, the Peoples National Party [PNP] was elected to power December 29, 2011.

 

While the position might appear as fun & games, Lisa has quite the task at hand, as not only is she instrumental in shaping and changing Jamaica’s future [children do grow up at some point], but she is also the first point of contact representing our Island in the arts & culture arena — Miss Lou, palm trees & beaches can only go so far… Also, 2016 Jamaica is light years away from 1972 Jamaica when my family was still there — that bloom is off the rose. There have been decades of government corruption & mismanagement that Lisa has probably inherited along with her position, [oh I guarantee there’s been some nonsense!] and that political Jamaican Old Boy Network is like a titanium fortress!. She also has her critics in the arena—many just embarrassing themselves and their country in reaction to a ‘pretty girl in power’. Surely she has to prove herself every day, and over & over again she stands her ground. As long as she can break out of the rigid pageant mold and think outside of the box, Lisa is smart enough and creative enough to be successful.

 

“For me, it is not the position, nor the title that gave the credibility or status; it was the substance that I gave to the journey.”

 

Nina Simone, 2/21/1933 – 4/21/2003

Every time I hear the ‘Feeling Good’ hook progression I imagine someone like Jane Russell or Mae West doing some kind of super sultry burlesque performance to it… slowly slinking around a luxurious dressing room, leading with their hips and arms outstretched feeling the air sensuously as they move thru it, a chaise lounge in there somewhere, well-lit in a muted amber glow… gorgeousness… Unfortunately not written by my gorgeous darling of the day, Nina Simone – actually we have a couple of Brits to thank for this ditty – Anthony Newly & Leslie Bricusse, and while so many have sung it, nobody comes close to Nina [well… maybeMattBellamyfromMuse ::ducking & running::] in capturing it so succinctly & simply but oh so poignantly.

 

 

Nina, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth of eight children, was destined to stir things up a bit… if one is a little stirred up all already, the ‘stirring’, as it were, is inevitable. Here we have a life of musical talent & opportunity, passion, and at times heartbreak and darkness. Her civil rights activism started early too, as during a piano recital at 12, her parents, proud of their daughter, had sat front & center, but were asked to move to the back to make room for the white audience members… it’s rumored that little Eunice refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front row! Oh that pesky Segregation… hanging around like a crotchety old man in high-waisted pants that needs a good washing… The Waymons were a poor family, but they recognized Eunice’s talent [she would later take on the stage name of Nina Simone in order to secretly perform in jazz clubs, singing the “Devil’s” music, as her Methodist minister mother deemed her choice of genre]. There was always struggle with the thought of school and actually getting in. Wouldn’t it be a perfect world to have a situation in which school was completely taken care of and you just show up & do well, then get out and propagate your awesomeness into the world? Not have to worry about the funds, or getting shut down because of how you look? First was the Curtis Institute of Music in Philly, and despite an audition that blew the review staff away, she was denied. Nina was convinced that racism was behind the refusal. Luckily, NYCs Julliard School was around the corner, and while she did well there, sadly, money ran out.

 

So, time to perform! this way Nina could pay for private lessons and get out there & be heard. An Atlantic City bar was her first stepping off point. Her musical style incorporated gospel, pop, a bit of jazz, especially adding that distinct contralto of hers, with a tiny smidgen of classical Baroque woven in [a little of the ol’ Johann Sebastian] as well as Romantic era classical styles… that’s how you blend! Then would come her first album, ‘Little Girl Blue’… unfortunately the financial negotiations of this endeavor weren’t properly nailed down. Nina lost alot on this, but artistically she was still successful, and her talent & drive propelled her into the next decade. Controversy followed our dear Nina; I mentioned the ‘stirring up’ aspect earlier. Her angle of the Civil Rights movement was a bit spicier than MLK Jr. and his efforts for peace. She went the Malcolm X ‘by any means necessary’ route, and she stayed active. When you speak your mind & are forthright, as Nina was, feathers got ruffled. There were also rumors of a temper and irrational behavior. Much of this may have been due to her bi-polar condition, and she would begin taking meds from the mid-60s onward. All of these road bumps hindered nothing. The ‘High Priestess of Soul’, as Nina was nicknamed, continued to be successful in her musical career, even if her personal life got a little dicey. The number of artists she’s influenced reads like an exclusive phonebook! Despite her success here in the States, by the early 70s she decided that living abroad was more suited for her— from what she was witnessing, there were just certain things that weren’t going to change in the US. She would travel & live between Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Barbados & Liberia, performing along the away. Her performance style was captivating– just chatting to or with the audience like she was hosting a dinner party in between selections, sometimes silence… the audience would follow her; she’d hold them there on her every word like magic.

 

Nina fell in the love with Southern France and settled down there in 1993… 10 years later, with Spring upon us, she finally succumbed to the breast cancer that plagued her for some time, and died in her sleep in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône. Wouldn’t ask for a better place to kick off! Would have been so cool to run into her at Marché in Arles… Sleep well dear Nina.

 

“The worst thing about that kind of prejudice… is that while you feel hurt and angry and all the rest of it, it feeds your self-doubt. You start thinking, perhaps I am not good enough.”

That girl could sing

The music I have included in this blog has been a little phallocentric. A bunch of men playing with their instruments and whining how their girl/woman/baby has done them wrong. There will be a lot more of that in the future but I want to do a couple of pieces about the wonderful female singers & players who have made music I have loved for so long. I am not the biggest fan of sensitive women with acoustic guitars. A young woman recently asked my opinion of Joni Mitchell. I said that men pretended to like her music so they could sleep with women who did like it. I do not believe this at all…it was a joke. I was shocked that I had even thought such a thing never mind said it out loud.

The music in these first two is mainly from the 60s, a period in music which seems to be a gift that keeps on giving…Man, I thought I had my first three & I around five more have jumped to the front of my mind. OK let’s see where this leads me.

How much do you love this clip ? Barbara Lynn, young (just 20), beautiful, elegant & confident. This is her first single, a song of her own. It takes elements from the blues, church & country. Barbara is contributing to the invention of the sound and the look of a phenomenon…soul music. Tamla Motown employed people to show their artists how to present themselves in public.They would have probably advised their young ladies from Detroit that toting around a big old Fender Esquire would be inappropriate. Ms Lynn’s personal guitar style is wonderful,The instrumental break, leading the best Texan musicians money could hire, is still amazing. Ms Lynn don’t need no charm school. When she sang in D.C. she dropped by the White House & gave Jackie Kennedy some tips. Big crush here, I’ll admit it.

The arrival of rock and roll seriously affected the ability of blues artists to make a living from their music. The new generation of young black Americans wanted a new sound less rooted in the painful experience of the generations before them. In Chicago, the home of urban blues, Chess Records (with producer Willie Dixon) continued to make fine blues records throughout the early 60s. In 1965 (three years after the modernity of Barbara Lynn) this Koko Taylor classic,written by Dixon, became an R&B hit.

Koko was in her 30s when she had her hit. She stuck to the blues as the other female star at Chess, Etta James, moved towards soul. As this clip, taped in 1967, shows she got to have Chicago’s finest musicians in her band. The harmonica player is Little Walter (Jacobs), his run of hit records in the 50s are essential records. The rock and roll Hall of Fame originated a “sideman” category to accommodate Walter. An alcoholic with a temper,  his playing helped define the template of Chicago blues. Guitarist, Hound Dog Taylor, seems to be a man who is not easily pleased. His sliver of a smile at the end of the song indicates his opinion that Koko and the band had represented for Chicago and the music. They certainly have.

Koko recorded a wild duet with Willie Dixon, “Insane Asylum”, which can still shock with it’s raw power. It is a pity that it was her death, two years ago, that brought her back into the public’s ears.

Well, it had to be Ms Simone. She was the “High Priestess of Soul” but her artistry meant that her music was beyond categories. In her best work she obtained such depth and purity of emotion that it can still shock. She had a reputation as a difficult person to work with and as a erratic performer. Those of us who only know her records recognise a seeker of truth even perfection and we love her for it.

Her involvement in the civil rights movement was often reflected in her choice of material. She was never didactic but always forthright, always intense. “Ain’t Got No…I Got Life”, a hit from the hippie musical “Hair”, has never been my favourite tune of hers though this makes me reconsider. This version of a song of affirmation and hope was recorded in 1969 at the Harlem Community Festival. Simone is a beautiful, aristocratic African queen. Her dashiki- clad band cook up a fine groove and she sings the hell out of the song.

I don’t know if the Harlem Festival is still held. I think they have Dave Chappelle’s Block Party instead !