Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cadillac Records: 'Scrappy, Passionate'

Interesting review of Cadillac Records, the Chess Records bio pic, from Slate's Dana Stevens:

Watching the scrappy, passionate Cadillac Records only a week after the wondrous Milk, I found myself musing: What if we tried to be kinder to the biopic? It's a genre that takes so much flak for being literal-minded, stodgy, and predictable. Yet in recent years, movies based on the real lives of public figures have also provided a place for superb work by actors (and sometimes directors as well). What if we regarded biopics in the same way we do jazz standards: a familiar, generic framework that each artist makes his or her own through improvisation? After all, no one asks why Ella Fitzgerald is singing that corny old "How High the Moon" again. We listen to what she does with the song.

Cadillac Records is a good place to start with this rethinking of the biopic, since it's all about what one group of seminal black American musicians did with popular song. The film isn't so much about the biography of any one person as it as about the life of a record label: Chess Records, the Chicago blues label owned by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), that launched the careers of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and other great "crossover" artists from the postwar years when blues begat rhythm and blues, which begat rock 'n' roll.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Have Records, Will Blog

So I've been thinking for awhile that I ought to start a record collection. After all, someone as entranced as I am by the golden oldies has to move beyond CD compilations eventually, right? To have any semblance of cred at all?

Right. A record collection is a clear necessity. But until now, lack of money, lack of a record player, and lack of a home in which to keep either records or record player have all conspired to stop me from acquiring one.

This week, though, in a used record shop doing research for an assignment, I threw caution to the wind. The store had a soul and R&B section with an unexpected cache of original Stax Volt releases, and I took the plunge. I dropped $107 (including taxes) on my first eight grown-up* records.

Here's the list:

-Motown Winners' Circle Volume 2
-Diana Ross and the Supremes: Greatest Hits
-The Drifters: Golden Hits
-Wattstax: The Living Word
-Booker T & The MGs: Greatest Hits
-Otis Redding: The Dock of the Bay
-The Marvelettes
-Steve Cropper: With a Little Help from my Friends

Of course, I can't listen to any of them until I get myself a record player. And a home in which to play it. So until that happens, here's the next best thing: a clip of the Staple Singers at Wattstax.

*Somewhere, I have a solid stash of Raffi and Sharon, Lois and Bram on vinyl.

Monday, October 20, 2008

R.I.P. Dee Dee Warwick

Dee Dee Warwick died this weekend at age 63. She spent much of her career working as a backup singer for her sister, Dionne, and other soul artists, but here are a few of her solo efforts:

Foolish Fool

I'm Gonna Make You Love Me

(Recorded before the Supremes' version, and preferable in my book)

You're No Good

Rest in peace, Dee Dee.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

R.I.P. Levi Stubbs

Levi Stubbs, the long-time singer for the Four Tops, died on Friday in Detroit. He was 72.

The Four Tops happen to be my favourite Motown group - here are a few of their classics, all with Stubbs on lead vocals:

The Same Old Song - my all-time Tops favourite

Standing in the Shadows of Love - shady sound quality, but great live energy

Reach Out, I'll Be There

Rest in peace, Levi.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

James Brown - Night Train

A few years back, not long before James Brown died, I turned down the chance to see him live, because I had a mid-term exam the next morning. It's entirely possible that the decision will haunt me all the way to my grave.

By all accounts, a James Brown live show was absolutely transcendent - this clip gives some sense of the sheer energy involved:

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Soul Soundtracks: Remember The Titans

Inter-racial soul sing-alongs were a big part of Remember The Titans, the (based-on-a) true story of a newly de-segregated high school football team.

Here's one of several Motown tracks from the album, "You've Got To Earn It" by the Temptations:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stevie Wonder, Live in Concert

The Guardian has an interesting review of Wonder's recent London gig - by turns scathing, amused and impressed.

Here's a highlight, following the author's (gently mocking?) comments about Stevie's publicly pledged allegiance to Barack Obama:

But there is no ignoring the frisson of electricity running through black music in the US at the moment, and, specifically, through Stevie Wonder, long an activist, and now court musician to the Sun King-to-be. Buoyed by liberal America's Obama-mania, he is in expansive mode. Led onstage by Aisha, beat-boxing into a microphone, he takes up the harmonica, paying tribute to Miles Davis's 'All Blues', into which he manages to work in the melody from 'London Bridge Is Falling Down', charming everyone from the off.

When, finally, he mines his rich vein of peak-period hits in the final half hour, the aisles fill with the dancing figures of black, white, young and old. 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours' gives way to the irresistible lift of 'Sir Duke'. It's soon followed by 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)' and the peerless 'Superstition', played just like you remember them. Not for Wonder the endless rearranging indulged in by stars bored of their hits: he plays them all straight, if far too perfunctorily.

Bizarrely, he interrupts this magisterial flow to ask for a moment of silence for the victims of 9/11. As an afterthought, Wonder amends it to include all unnecessary deaths in all wars throughout history. There is no doubting his sincerity. But for all the energy coursing through Wonder, his two-hour show suffers from a lack of focus and unforgivably bad pacing. Can you be struck down by God for insinuating that Stevie Wonder lacks a sense of rhythm? I'm braced.

Dang. I'm trying to imagine - if I should ever have the good fortune to see Stevie live, and to review the show - whether I'd be able to maintain any semblance of professionalism or just gush my way through 800 words.

Actually, on second thought, I'd poke fun at 'Ribbon in the Sky', too.