Friday, July 29, 2011

Concrete Blonde

I love rock music. Always have. It brings me a joy that I can't describe. That being said, there are a handful of things about rock music that I'm none too crazy about. Topping that list is the way immensely talented artists can be practically ignored while talentless hacks find a way to take up precious space atop the charts. Taking the high road, I will not name any of those talentless hacks, but I will name a prime example of criminally underrated talent. I give you Concrete Blonde led by the transcendant Johnette Napolitano.

Singer/songwriter/bassist Napolitano formed the band Dream 6 with Guitarist James Mankey in Los Angeles in 1982. They released an eponymous EP in France on the Happy Hermit label. When they signed to IRS Records in 1986, labelmate Michael Stipe of R.E.M. suggested Concrete Blonde as a name for the band, describing the combination of their hard rock and introspective lyrics. "Concrete Blonde" is also a derogatory term applied to 80s hair metal bands. During an MTV interview, Napolitano said that she thought they were just two words that sounded good together. Drummer Harry Rushakoff joined the band for their debut self-titled IRS album. Rushakoff was replaced by ex-Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson in time to record their sophomore release Bloodletting. Rushakoff rejoined the band in 2002 after the release of their Mexican Moon album but was dismissed shortly thereafter for missing shows. He was replaced by drummer Gabriel Ramirez.

The band's music can most easily be labeled as alternative rock fueled by Johnette Napolitano's singularly emotive voice which alternates between plaintive and snarling with an impressive range , particularly in the lower registers. Her songwriting is top-shelf, clever and catchy, showing a wide range of influences. With the added bonus of Mankey's beyond tasteful guitar work, they are a truly incandescent studio and live act.
The songs of Concrete Blonde did not escape the ears of several filmakers. The band's music was prominently featured in the 1987  film The Hidden, as well as appearing in 1986's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1991's Point Break and  the film Pump Up The Volume featured the exquisite "Everybody Knows".

The band's most successful album was 1990's Bloodletting which featured the top 20 hit "Joey". They broke up in 1993, reunited in 1997, and again in 2001, releasing the albums Group Therapy in 2002 and Mojave in 2004. Concrete Blonde finally disbanded officially in 2006.
Johnette Napolitano embarked on a series of solo and collaborative projects after the breakup. She also tours currently featuring many Concrete Blonde songs in her shows. She, along with Concrete Blonde have made a huge contribution to rock music as an art form and most importantly to its credibility and worth. And for that I humbly thank them.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Todd Storz

No, he's not a singer, guitarist, piano player or a musician at all for that matter. Well who is he,then ? Herein lies the story.
Todd Storz was born May 8, 1929 in Omaha,Nebraska , the grandson of beer brewing legend Gottlieb Storz. As a young man he became greatly interested in the medium of radio, becoming a ham radio enthusiast. He knew by then that radio was the business he wanted to be a part of. His father Robert, a man of considerable wealth, helped Todd buy a local radio station, KOWH in Omaha. Todd became the general manager and began his foray into the radio business. (Bear with me now, it gets there, trust me.)
Now at the time, radio programming consisted of  live music, dramatic series, and variety shows. Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger,Superman and so on were brought to America's homes via the radio. However, by the mid 1940s a little invention called television began to take hold with more and more families buying up tv sets. Inevitably, the personalities and programs left radio and migrated in short order to the video screen. Sponsors all but abandoned radio in the process.
Todd Storz, for his part was not about to have his radio career end before it had barely begun, and was determined to find a way to make radio viable again. Todd, a man who appreciated a good brew, frequently found himself in bars and restaurants. He noticed one day that customers would listen to the same song over and over. Let's say the song was "Pennies From Heaven". One after another  a different patron would drop in their coin and select "Pennies From Heaven". Then at closing time while cleaning up The waitress would go to the jukebox after listening to "Pennies From Heaven" all shift, drop in her coin and select..."Pennies From friggin' Heaven!
Seeing this ritual play itself out day after day, Todd realized that people liked to hear familiar songs over and over again. Maybe they would listen to the radio to hear their favorites repeated throughout the day! Todd immediately dumped the remaining programming from his station, researched by poll what songs people liked best, changed the station's format to all music with the occasional local news and weather and instructed his announcers to rotate a list of 40 songs compiled from his research throughout the day. This list was called....The Top 40. By the end of 1951, KOWH's  share of Omaha listeners went from 4 percent to 45 percent! While the rest of the industry dismissed this strange new programming initially, KOWH radio's continued success could finally no longer be ignored as stations across the country one by one adopted Todd Storz' music and news format.
Storz expanded his business into a stable of radio stations featuring his Top 40 format. His theory was not a new one. A half century earlier none other than Sigmund Freud put forth a "repetition compulsion" theory stating that it was human nature to try to repeat childhood experiences in order to work through adult problems. Psychologist John Mendelsohn postulated that the pleasure we get from entertainment comes in a large part from simple repetition of things that gave us pleasure in the past.
So a debt of gratitude is owed by Billboard, The Grammys, MTV, any artist who ever depended on airplay to sell records ,you and me to Todd Storz, the inventor, originator, the Father Of Top 40 Radio!
Todd Storz died at the height of his success April 13, 1964 of a stroke. He was 39.

An excellent book on radio as an enertainment medium is Something In The Air by Marc Fisher. It has the full story on Todd Storz and much more.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Ohio Players

It was way back in the year 1959 that a band formed in Dayton,Ohio called the Ohio Untouchables (no matter where you're from geographically, this is an eminently cool name for a band). This band included Robert Ward on guitar and vocals, bassist Marshall "Rock" Jones, Clarence "Satch" Satchell on saxophone and guitar, drummer Cornelius Johnson  and Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrooks on trumpet and trombone. They were the backup band for the Detroit vocal group The Falcons until they broke up in 1963. The core group members returned to Dayton and re-formed adding Gregory Webster on drums and Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner on guitar. Bonner would eventually become the group's frontman. Adding two more singers, Bobby Lee Fears and Dutch Robinson, they became the house band for the New York based Compass Records in 1967.

 In 1970 the line-up changed again with Bonner, Satchell, Middlebrooks, Jones and Webster being joined by vocalist Charles Dale Allen, trumpeter Bruce Napier, trombonist Marvin Peirce and future Parliament-Funkadelic member William "Junie" Morrison on keyboards. By this time calling themselves The Ohio Players, they had a minor hit on the Westbound label with the song "Pain" which managed to make the top 40 RnB chart.

The first big hit for the band was "Funky Worm", a humorous and wickedly funky tune similar in approach to Kool And The Gang's equally delightful "Funky Man". This one went to #1 on the RnB chart and made the top 20 on Billboard's Top 100. Selling over a million copies, it went gold in May of 1973. Signing to Mercury Records in 1974, a further line-up change occurred with Billy Beck and Jimmy "Diamond" Williams replacing Morrison and Webster respectively. The band had seven top 40 hits between the years of 1973 and 1976 including "Skin Tight", "Fire" and the iconic "Love Rollercoaster" which along with "Fire" went to #1 on both the pop and RnB charts.

The group's last hit was "Who'd She Coo?" which was their only U.K. chart success, peaking at #43 .
Clarence Satchell died of a brain aneurysm on December 30, 1995. Ralph Middlebrooks passed away in November of 1997. Robert Ward died at home on December 25, 2008.
The band has most recently been touring billed as Sugarfoot's Ohio Players.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Moment I Knew I Knew They Were The Real Thing...

When I hear or see a performance, my impressions, like anyone's will vary. Sometimes I will dismiss the act as substandard. Other times I will think."hmm..not bad, these guys might do a little damage one day". Then there are those all too few times when you realize you are witnessing true brilliance, that this act is what I like to call  The Real Thing. It's difficult to determine the exact criteria for such a moment, but much like pornography, you know it when you see it. It's the moment when you know what you're watching is not merely a good performance, but the work of a rare talent. To follow are three acts and the point where my personal "Real Thing" moment occurred.

Michael Jackson's appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special.
There is a reason that most Michael Jackson impersonators look comical and a bit pathetic...and that reason is simply that only Jackson himself was able to pull off those moves effectively. End of story. This was exactly the case with James Brown and Elvis. It was at this point that I realized this young man was one of the greatest musical performers popular music will ever see.
Real Thing Moment : No, not the moonwalk, too was the spin-to-frozen-pose he executed at 2:15...sublime.

"The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke/Nevermore" from Queen's second album Queen II. This band was never considered "progressive rock" simply because they hopped from genre to genre with giddy abandon, heavy metal here, dancehall there, disco, rockabilly, you name it. This selection proved early on what they were capable of. If you were familiar with Queen from their debut album on, then "Bohemian Rapshody" would have not surprised you one bit.
Real Thing Moment : at 1:01 they use the word "taterdemalion" in a rock song. These guys were so ahead of the curve it was ridiculous. (feel free to look it up)

It was the end of the 70s...and I for one was exhausted by all of the decade's stratopheric highs and bottom-of -the-barrel lows. As I drive home one night wondering what the 80's will bring, and if it even be worth it, this song comes on the radio. The guitar tone is unlike anything I've ever heard. The singer screams like Ian Gillan and sings like a drunken frat boy. The song itself is so simple it makes "Smoke On The Water" sound like "Watcher Of The Skies". It's "Running With The Devil" by Van Halen. Suddenly I can't wait for the 80's to begin.
Real Thing Moment : Eight pumps from a de-tuned bass guitar and at 0:18...The Riff!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Young Rascals

It was 1965 in the town of Garfield, New Jersey when organist/vocalist Felix Cavaliere, vocalist/percussionist Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer extraordinaire Dino Danelli formed The Young Rascals. All four were previously members of Joey Dee And The Starlighters of "Peppermint Twist" fame. At the time, however the group was actually called Them and was managed at the outset by Billy (Amato) Smith. Smith introduced the group to television and radio personality Soupy Sales and their initial work was as Sales' backing band using the name The Rascals. When they signed with Atlantic Records it was discovered that another band called The Harmonica Rascals objected to the group recording under the name The Rascals. Sid Bernstein, a well known manager and friend of Smith, began working with the group and changed their name to  The Young Rascals to avoid conflict. Exactly how the name change actually addressed the problem is unknown to this writer in that all three names had the word Rascals in it and later in the band's career they would again be known as The Rascals. Anyway, the group built up a large following at local clubs and eventually recorded their first single "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" which they performed on their first tv appearance on the show Hullabaloo February 27,1965. The song touched the lower end of the U.S. charts but got to #23 in Canada.

This modest success was followed by a release in 1966 that went to #1 in the U.S. and Canada. This song was a remake of a 1965 hit for The Olympics called "Good Lovin'". At this point Cavaliere and Brigati began writing original material for the band starting with two follow-up singles "Come On Up" and "You Better Run", the latter being a future hit for Pat Benatar, although for The Young Rascals they barely charted.

The band was steadily developing their signature blue-eyed soul style and sound, becoming a potent and popular live act. This began to pay off as their 1967 release "I've Been Lonely Too Long" charted much higher than its predecessors and later that year "Groovin" returned them to the #1 spot in the U.S. and Canada.

The band were doing well in The U.S. and were extremely popular in Canada, although they struggled somewhat in the U.K. They continued to turn out a string of top 20 U.S. hits including "A Girl Like You", "How Can I Be Sure", and "A Beautiful Morning". In the U.K. only "Groovin" (#8) and "A Girl Like You" (#35) had any significant success. It was with their 1968 release of "It's Wonderful" that they would be billed as The Young Rascals for the last time, thenceforth to be known simply as The Rascals. Time Peace:The Rascals Greatest Hits topped the album charts in 1968 and that same year the single "People Got To Be Free" became their final #1 hit.

Other songs followed in the 1968-1969 period such as "See", "Hold On", and "Carry Me Back" and though they all hit the top 40, none went higher than #24. In Canada however, the band remained huge with all these songs hitting the top 10 and completing a string of 11 top 10 Canadian hits.
The group disbanded in 1970 with Cavaliere and Brigati going solo and Cornish and Danelli forming  and recording with first their band Bulldog and then Fotomaker, the latter producing two respectable power-pop styled albums. They are definitely worth seeking out. The band briefly reunited once in 1988 and again in 2010. They were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on May 6, 1997.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

One Song...Two Versions...My Take On Them

It was 1995 when I first heard the just -released song entitled "No More I Love Yous" by one of my favorite singers Annie Lennox. It was, as I have come to expect from her, a fine performance containing all the emotion, humour and out and out drama that defines Ms. Lennox's style. Huge fan here, from her time with the new wave band The Tourists where she did incredible justice to Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want To Be With You" (if you haven't heard it , by all means seek it out), through her Eurythmics period on up to her solo work. She is an uncommonly gifted performer with a facile flamboyance and sense of the dramatic few artists possess. In fact , I have always maintained that she is the only singer that should even have been considered as the late, great Freddy Mercury's successor in the band Queen. "No More More I Love Yous" was Annie in her element.

Then I found out that the song was a remake. Curious, I sought out the original which was by a group called The Lover Speaks. Turns out the song was written by group members Joseph Hughes and Dave Freeman and released in 1985. It went to #58 in the U.K. while Lennox's version won a Grammy Award for best female rock vocalist and was a huge hit in the U.S. and Europe. I finally listened to The Lover Speaks' version and my reaction was "Oi! This is the proper one!" Stripped of all the bells and whistles of the Lennox version including that giggly spoken middle eight , the original version grabs you at the outset with a beefy rock-funk bass and drum rhythm that never lets up, elegant in its simplicity, allowing the poignant lyrics about  giving up on love due to repeated pain to assume their rightful place front and center. Lennox's version is about performance art, The Lover Speaks' version is about the song.

Make no mistake, I am still a staunch Annie Lennox fan , but for this song The Lover Speaks gets the nod. It should have been a hit, not the answer to a trivia question.

Jerry Butler

When an entertainer's performance, be it a magician, baskeball player, actor or singer, is described as "effortless", we don't mean that there is a lack of effort or talent. "Effortless" refers to the fact that the entertainer is so talented and comfortable in their gifts that it only appears that they aren't trying when the reality is that they're giving you all they've got.
Jerry Butler's style is cool, smooth and seemingly effortless. There is no dancing, no shouting, just Jerry standing onstage unleashing his incredible baritone and holding the audience in the palm of his hand. he doesn't even sweat, for cryin' out loud!
This is why the late legendary Philadelphia disc jockey/activist Georgie Woods dubbed him "The Iceman" and the nickname stuck as he became one of RnB's most  enduring talents.

His family migrated from Mississippi to Chicago where he grew up in the Cabrini-Green projects. He met Curtis Mayfield, another member of the church choir Butler sang in. In addition Jerry Butler performed in the gospel quartet The Northern Jubilee Singers, also with Mayfield. Strongly inspired by Sam Cooke And The Soul Stirrers,The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, and The Pilgrim Travelers, Butler and Mayfield formed The Roosters, a six -member group that later became The Impressions.

The Impressions auditioned
for Chess and Vee Jay Records, ultimately signing with Vee Jay. They recorded their first song for the label, a Jerry Butler composition called "Your Precious Love". It became their first hit, went gold and remains one of the most beautiful, evocative songs ever put to a master tape. It was released in 1958 and went to #11 pop and #3 RnB. Butler also wrote "I've Been Loving You Too Long" which became a classic in the hands of one Otis Redding.

Butler left the Impressions  to go solo leaving the lead singing and writing responsibilities in what proved to be the extremely capable hands of Curtis Mayfield. As a solo artist he had a string of hits, including "He Will Break Your Heart", "Only The Strong Survive", "Moon River", "Dream Merchant" and "Moody Woman". His collaboration with Philadelphia songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff  was a huge factor in his hitmaking success, with Butler becoming a large contributor to the legendary "Philly Sound".

Jerry Butler produced two very successful albums, The Iceman Cometh which garnered three Grammy nominations, and Ice On Ice. He is also one of the few music greats to also have a career in politics, serving as a Cook County Commisioner from the early 80s up to today. He, along with The Impressions were inducted into The Rock And Roll  Hall Of Fame in 1991. He still takes to the road occasionally as well as television appearances.