Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sixties Soul Instrumentals - Five Of The Best

Make no mistake, all things rockin' definitely includes dancing. When we have exhausted all the ways we can express our appreciation for the music we love vocally, it  becomes time to move one's body. This is the way it always has been from the twist, to the cha-cha, to the hustle, to stage diving, our music is body music. The instrumental works great in that regard, no lyrics to listen to, only music to feel. To follow are five randomly chosen instrumentals of the RnB genre from the 60s and 70s. A small and incomplete list to be sure, but perhaps enough to hold you until the next one. And now, for your pleasure...

Booker T. And The MGs - Green Onions

The Bar Kays - Soul Finger

Cliff Nobles & Co. - The Horse

Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra - Love's Theme

The Meters - Cissy Strut

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Great Performances #2

Back in the good old days ( danger! danger! old fart alert! )  when rock and roll was literally a lifestyle, playing keyboards meant a Hammond B-3 organ with a Fender Rhodes piano stacked precariously on top of it, drummers had no use for a drum riser and every picture did indeed tell a story, Rod Stewart And The Faces were at the top of their game. The two performances that follow are examples of five guys having a bluesy, boozy good time making the music they love and making it all look so easy. Special attention must go to the tasteful bass lines and vocal support of the late great Ronnie Lane. The first number is the Rod Stewart - Ian McLagen song "Three Button Hand Me Down" after which the boys spray their wonderful stink all over the once-immaculate Paul McCartney ballad "Maybe I'm Amazed" both recorded at The BBC in 1971. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Marvin Gaye

Motown Records was known as "a hit factory"...this was probably as accurate a reference as any for the legendary organization. It's formula was basically speaking, to take acts with potential and provide them with in-house teams of some of the best writers in the business, choreographers, wardrobe experts and of course, the inimitable Funk Brothers, and from the ground up, build one sensational act after another. It was this method that made The Supremes, The Temptations, Martha And The Vandellas, The Four Tops and many others into the legends they became. There were however, some individuals who quite frankly were already so blessed with talent that they didn't really need the formula. They were destined for stardom Motown or no Motown, and whether Berry Gordy liked it or not, time proved that they were best left to their own devices. (This of course did not pertain to The Funk Brothers...they were indispensable.)
Stevie Wonder was one such act. Another was Marvin Gaye.
Born Marvin Pentz Gay in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1939, he early on had to deal with his biggest obstacle in the form of his father Marvin Gay,Sr., a minister at a local House Of God church. The elder Marvin prohibited all sports and all music except gospel, and enforced those rules and any others with frequent beatings for the slightest infraction. He allowed his son one outlet which was singing in church from the age of four.
Despite his father's short leash, Gaye managed to learn to play several instruments including piano and drums and as his high school years began, developed a love for doo-wop and RnB music. He  would often defy his father by sneaking off to parties and concerts and joined several groups in the area. Despite support from his mother for his musical interests, his contentious relationship with his father caused him to enlist into The Air Force with hopes of becoming an aviator. He found that he hated taking orders and this caused him to be discharged. Upon returning home he formed a vocal group with his friend Reese Palmer called The Marquees. The Marquees attracted the attention of Bo Diddley who signed them to Okeh Records releasing a song "Wyatt Earp" in 1958 to modest success. Later that year, Harvey Fuqua, founder of the Moonglows recruited the group to become The New Moonglows after the breakup of the original group. They began recording for Chess Records and did background vocals for Etta James and Chuck Berry. In late 1959 the group released "Mama Loochie" which was Gaye's first recorded lead vocal and a regional hit.

It came to pass that Berry Gordy, who's sister Gwen was in a relationship with Fuqua, took Fuqua and Gaye on as Motown employees. For Gaye's part, his first work for the label was as a janitor and later as a session drummer for many Motown acts including The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and The Marvelettes. It was in 1962 that he broke into the top 40 with his solo Motown single release "Hitch Hike". It was also at this time that the singer added the "e" to his last name. Some have said it was to emulate Sam Cooke who did the same when starting to sing secular music. Others have said it was to distance himself from his father.

Almost immediately Gordy and Gaye clashed over material. one such conflict was when Gordy wanted to change a chord on Gaye's composition "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow". Gaye won out in the end, but despite consistent evidence that Gaye knew what he was doing, Gordy constantly felt the need to micro-manage. "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow", released written as Gaye wanted it, became another hit. His career skyrocketed from there, getting rave reviews from his performances with The Motortown Revue as well as becoming a fixture on television shows such as Shindig and Hullabaloo. In the U.K. his influence and popularity was strongly felt, with his songs being covered by artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart, Dusty Springfield and many others. The late legendary producer Phil Spector admitted to almost having an auto accident trying to pull over upon hearing "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow" for the first time. One of my own personal early Marvin Gaye favorites is "Take This Heart Of Mine".
While the hits kept coming, Gaye still felt frustrated at not being able to record more of the jazz material he loved. Due to his overall success, Gordy did allow him to record When I'm Alone I Cry, Hello Broadway and tribute album to Nat King Cole. Unfortunately all three albums flopped and when Gaye attempted to perform such material in his shows, the audience was not receptive. In addition to his solo successes he did very well with duets, scoring his first international hit with "It Takes Two", a duet with Kim Weston. But his greatest singing partner turned out to be the late great Tammi Terrell. The duo had hit after hit with songs mostly composed by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a husband-and-wife team who were among Motown's elite composers."Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing", "Your Precious Love", "You're All I Need To Get By" and others consistently hit high on the charts. No exception was the hitmaking team's signature song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

On January 17,1971 a song by Marvin Gaye was released that Berry Gordy told Gaye and anyone who would listen that it was the worst song he ever heard and that it would destroy the singer's image. Gordy allowed it to be released but refused to promote or support it in any way. It was a song Gaye wrote with Ed Townsend about his feelings concerning the Vietnam War. Despite all the resistance and lack of promotion this song  almost immediately became a million seller and crossed over to new audiences while maintaining his present fan base. This song was titled "What's Going On".

In May of that year the album, also titled What's Going On was released. With its combination of funk, Latin, jazz and classical influences as well as the way one song would segue into the next and the lyrical content, the album was a total departure from the famed "Motown Sound". The fact that no in-house writers or producers were used made this one of the first autonomously-produced works to come from the label. Gaye did however, stick with The Funk Brothers. The man wasn't crazy.
Two other singles were released from the album, "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)", and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)". Both went to the top ten as well as "What's Going On" making Marvin Gaye the first male solo artist to have three hits in the top ten at the same time. Gaye's accomplishment inspired Stevie Wonder to record a similarly-themed album Where I'm Coming From and to successfully negotiate for total creative control over his future works. Others, like Michael Jackson and Prince followed suit, albeit with different record companies. What's Going On has been acknowledged worldwide as a landmark achievement in popular music.

In 1973 Marvin Gaye brought the love songs back to stay with the release of  Let's Get It On which along with the title track single release earned commercial and critical acclaim. His final duet project was with Diana Ross and was followed in 1976 by I Want You. The single "After The Dance" and its follow-up "Got To Give It Up"were perfect for the then peaking disco era, and the sales proved it. "Got To Give It Up" became Gaye's third number one hit. After the release of his final Motown LP, Here,My Dear in 1978 Gaye signed with Columbia Records and his first album with that company was Midnight Love. the song from that album, "Sexual Healing" earned Gaye two Grammy Awards and an American Music Award.

Despite his impressive early 80s comeback Gaye,struggled as he had for most of his life, with substance abuse and depression. After his last tour he moved back in with his parents, where the pattern of violent conflict with his father resumed. On April ,1984 Marvin Gay,Sr. shot and killed his son after a physical altercation. The father would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter though he claimed it was self defense.
Marvin Gaye was inducted posthumously into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987 and was given a star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame. He had scored forty one top 40 pop singles and sixty top 40 RnB singles. He is a recipient of The NAACP Image Hall Of Fame Award and his release of the single "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" remains Motown's biggest-selling international release.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

One Hit Wonders # 7 - Stories

Many times it's hard to predict which songs will or will not become a hit. A surprising number of hit songs began as out and out rejects, or as in the case of Stories' hit song "Brother Louie", a mere afterthought. The band was formed in the early 70s when Brooklyn native and keyboardist Michael Brown and Seattle-born vocalist/bassist Ian Lloyd were introduced to each other by their respective fathers, two friends who had worked together as session violinists. Brown had been a member of the 60s-era band The Left Banke, known for the hit "Walk Away,Renee". Lloyd had been a locally successful singer for several years. They recruited guitarist Steve Love and drummer Brian Madey, and not long after secured a deal and released a self -titled album on the Kama Sutra label in 1972. This debut was not particularly well received, but the label gave them another shot releasing their sophomore effort About Us, this time with producer extraordinaire Eddie Kramer at the helm. Shortly after the album's release Brown left the band to pursue another project. He was replaced by bassist Kenny Aaronson and keyboardist Ken Michel. "Brother Louie" was not included on either album, languishing as an out-take for some time. The label finally released the song as a single in mid-1973,  whereupon it went to #1 on the U.S. charts for two weeks and stayed on the charts otherwise for eighteen weeks total, earning a gold record. Interestingly enough, the song, which was about an inter-racial love affair, had been a hit in the U.K. for the band Hot Chocolate earlier that year.

One Hit Wonders # 6 - Whale

Here's another One Hit Wonder for ya...this time brought to you courtesy of a Swedish pop/electronica  group known as Whale. Formed in the early 90s by Henrik Schyffert, Gordon Cyrus and Cia Berg, their first single, "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe" taken from their album  We Care in 1993, received heavy airplay on MTV and while going top 10 in Sweden and Norway, also managed to hit #24 on the U.S. modern rock charts. A rather maniacal little number, it can be best described as chaos kept in check by a funky bass and drum groove. Once you think it's about to go hurtling off the rails, the groove reels it back in just in time...that is, except at the end where it pretty much sails off into oblivion leaving us all a bit exhausted. Hang on tight, for here comes "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe", our latest One Hit Wonder!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Great Performances #1

This is the beginning of what will be a series in this blog of what can only be described as Great Performances. The criteria for inclusion in this series is simply an act captured live proving why they are so highly regarded. First up is a team-up of two legendary horn bands, Earth Wind And Fire and Chicago. Two distinctively different styles blending seamlessly together and appearing to be having a lot of fun in the process. The two performances to follow, one an Earth Wind And Fire song, the other a Chicago song, are from a 2004 performance at The Greek Theater in Los Angeles. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Yardbirds

In a southwest suburb of London in the year 1963, vocalist-harmonica player Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith formed The Metropolitan Blues Quartet. After recruiting guitarist Chris Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty and guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham they changed their name to The Blue Sounds and a couple of gigs later settled on the name The Yardbirds. This name was either a reference to an expression that described hobos hanging around railyards or saxophone legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, depending on who happens to be telling the story. At first performing as the backup band for British blues pioneer Cyril Davies, they soon gained their own following as part of the burgeoning blues scene in the U.K. In september of 1963 they took over as the house band for The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, succeeding The Rolling Stones, drawing their repetoire from the best of the Chicago blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Songs like "Rollin And Tumblin'", "I'm A Man", "Smokestack Lightning" and "Boom Boom" became theirbread and butter.
Topham left the band and at this point the group began its role, among other things , of exposing legendary guitarists to the world at large. This was started by replacing Topham with Eric Clapton in October of 1963.

The band's first manager was Giorgio Gomelsky. Under Gomelsky's guidance the group signed to EMI's Columbia Records and released their first LP, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club In London. After releasing two singles, "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" it was the third single, the Graham Gouldman-penned "For Your Love" that gave the band its first hit. Selling over a million copies, it was awarded a gold disc.

For Clapton, this was all well and good, but the young man was a blues purist and was none to pleased at the distinctly un-blueslike direction the band seem headed in. He quit the band to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Gentleman that he was, Clapton suggested prominent studio guitarist Jimmy Page as a replacement. Page declined, preferring the relative financial security of session work, but made a recommendation of his own, friend  Jeff Beck. Beck took the job and performed his first Yardbirds gig a scant two days later. Clapton, blues enthusiast as he was, probably should have hung around another couple of years in light of the fact that the group would in 1966 record an album with none other than Sonny Boy Williamson II. Well, hindsight and all that.

Jeff Beck was one to experiment. His usage of distortion, controlled feedback and fuzz tone pedals fit in well with the increasingly raw British beat music in general, as well as The Yardbirds' experimentation in particular. Various European and Asian elements and even Gregorian-style chants began to appear in songs like "Still I'm Sad", "Hot House Of Omagarashid" and "Over Under Sideways Down". Though the band's commercial appeal was spotty, Beck himself gained more and more of the critical acclaim that would make him a future guitar hero.

In June of 1966 Paul Samwell-Smith left the band to concentrate on producing. Jimmy page agreed to sign on as bass guitarist while Chris Dreja learned how to play bass properly. The Beck-Page guitar tandem is heard on the studio version of the psychedelic-tinged "Happening Ten YearsTime Ago" with future Led Zeppelin member JohnPaul Jones, also a respected session musician at the time. Eventually Dreja switched to bass full-time and for a while the band used the dual guitar line-up featuring Beck and Page.

The Yardbirds recorded very little in the studio with the two guitar line-up and no live recordings. They did however, appear in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow Up, where they mimed to a track they recorded called "Stroll On" which was basically a cover of the blues classic "Train Kept A Rollin'" with a title change. In this appearance Jeff Beck smashed his guitar, a cheap Hofner model supplied for the purpose of destruction.

In late October of 1966 Jeff Beck was fired for missing gigs, starting fights and other random acts of Beck-ishness leaving Jimmy Page as remaining guitarist and the band carried on as a quartet for the rest of its existence. Their commercial fortunes began to decline as "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" made it to only #30 on the U.S. charts and barely cracked the top 100 in England. Not even a partnership with hitmaking writer Mickie Most seemed to help. The Most-penned single "Little Games" flopped so badly in the U.K. that EMI didn't release another recording there until after the band broke up. The Yardbirds spent most of 1967 touring the U.S. with new manager Peter Grant. The band's final official gig was on July 7, 1968 at The Luton College Of Technology in Bedfordshire, England.

Relf  and McCarty became interested in doing music that was more folk and classically oriented. they left to form Renaissance which included Relf's sister Jane. Later, in 1975 Relf and McCarty formed a hard rock quartet named Armageddon which released two albums that went widely unheard but of fine quality nonetheless. Jimmy Page, still wanting to go the heavy rock route, recruited vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham. In time Chris Dreja left the band to pursue photography as a profession. He was replaced by session ace John Paul Jones. They remained The Yardbirds until the end of 1968 when prompted by a cease and desist order filed by Dreja, claiming rights to "The Yardbirds" name. As anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention would know, the band changed its name to Led Zeppelin and began creating a whole other rock legend. Singer Keith Relf unfortunately was killed in an electrical accident in his home on May 14, 1976.
The Yardbirds were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. All the surviving members including Beck and Page attended, with the exception of Clapton who was touring at the time. Keith Relf''s wife April and son Danny accepted the induction on his behalf.
The band re-formed in 1992 with Dreja, McCarty and new members Gypie Mayo on guitar, John Idan on bass and lead vocals and Alan Glen on harmonica and vocals. The band still are active as The Yardbirds performing occasionally with guest artists such as Steve Vai, Brian May, Slash, Jeff Beck and on one gig were actually joined onstage by original guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rick James

James Ambrose Johnson, Jr, later to be known as Rick James, was born February 4, 1948 in Buffalo, New York and is the nephew of the late great Temptations basso profundo Melvin Franklin. Early on in life James developed a tendancy towards doing things his way. Dropping out of school at the age of 15, he began singing on the street corners with friends. In order to avoid being drafted, he enlisted in The U.S. Naval Reserve. Weekend training and a fledgling musical career proved to be a poor mix as James began to skip training more and more until finally going AWOL. Fully aware that the armed forces took a particularly dim view of such activities, James relocated north to Toronto, Canada in the summer of 1964 and formed his first band with future Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas. The band was called The Sailor Boyz and later renamed The Mynah Birds. This group also included at different times future members of The Buffalo Springfield, Bruce Palmer and Neil Young. After a successful audition for Motown Records, the band fired its manager for pocketing the advance money. The manager responded by outing James as an AWOL sailor. This prompted Motown to turn James in to the authorities and the Mynah Birds project was shelved. After a year in a naval prison, he returned to Toronto, formed a new line-up of The Mynah Birds during the summer of 1967, which broke up shortly after. In early 1968, he returned to Motown as a  writer and producer working with Smokey Robinson, The Spinners and Canadian band Bobby Taylor And The Vancouvers. Yet another change of residence, this time to Los Angeles, resulted in James Being involved with a number of failed band projects. So it was back to Detroit and Motown, where he finally released his first solo album, Come Get It! , which featured the funk hit "You And I".

This album, released in 1978, on which James played most of the instruments, launched his solo career and was followed up with Fire It Up. At this point he embarked on his first tour as a headliner with an up-and-coming artist named Prince as the opening act. The two artists' relationship began cordially, then became strained as James began to accuse Prince of stealing elements of his act. The situation became unmanageable and James finally cancelled the remainder of the tour. Early in 1979 his third album, Bustin' Out Of L Seven was released.

Rick James' fourth LP release, 1980's Garden Of Love was heavily pop-RnB flavored. It tanked. The next album was Street Songs, a much grittier hard funk collection which was also contained rock and new wave influences. This would prove to be his most successful outing featuring James' signature song "Super Freak" which went to #16 on the Billboard Top 100 and earned a Grammy Award nominaton. The album itself went to #1 on the RnB charts and #3 on the pop charts. My personal favorite on this album is "Ghetto Life", which along with "Super Freak" features backing vocals by The Temptations.

James, along with his touring and studio group The Stone City Band, rode the tidal wave that Street Songs generated well into 1983 when his next LP Cold Blooded was released, the title track of which became yet another hit. The relationship between James and Motown remained lucrative until business conflicts of one type or another led James to leave the label and sign with Warner Brothers in 1986.

During his Motown heyday James was in demand as a writer and producer. He was asked to produce and provide songs for singer Teena Marie's much-anticipated debut Wild And Peaceful, an album that not only launched Marie's career but began a long-running personal and professional relationship between the two. The album's stand-out track was a hit duet with James called "I'm A Sucker For Your Love"
For The Temptations Reunion LP, James wrote and performed on the top 10 track "Standing On The Top". These tracks were saturated with the distinctive style James developed through the years.

In 1983 A collaboration with Smokey Robinson resulted in the top 30 RnB hit  "Ebony Eyes", a finely crafted throwback soul ballad. His first Warner Bothers album release was Wonderful, which featured "Loosey's Rap", another RnB chart hit with guest artist Roxanne Shante. The video for the song was banned on MTV and BET for sexual content, Rock Roots however, has no such restriction.

Rick James' fortunes began a downward slide as the 1990s came in. By this time his drug abuse, mainly with marijuana and cocaine, dating back to the 60s, was publicly known. In 1993 he was convicted of two separate assault charges and served two years in Folsom Prison. He also lost $2 million in a civil suit brought by one of the women he assaulted. He was released in 1996. His drug addiction finally overtook him as he suffered a stroke in 1998. He ended up needing a pacemaker and battling health problems from obesity.
On the morning of August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles by his caretaker, having succumbed to cardiac and pulmonary failure due to complications of his deteriorating health. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetary in Buffalo, New York. He had lived an all-too-brief life...always on his own terms.