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.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ray Charles - I Got A Woman

No fancy rationale today - I woke up this morning with this song stuck in my head. But with Ray Charles involved, do I need a better reason?

ps: Note the little figurines in the background above the record player!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Does Billboard's All-Time Hot 100 Have Soul?

The Hot 100 chart was founded in August 1958. This summer, for the 50th anniversary, Billboard put together a list of the chart's all-time hottest of the hot.

There's a complicated formula involved (outlined in this Globe and Mail article) since station reporting has changed so much over the years - and, as Billboard's charts director acknowledges, the list is imperfect: "This is simply a chronicle of how each of these songs performed in their era on the Hot 100," he told the Globe. "We're not saying these are the most memorable songs of your life. That would be something that's almost impossible to determine."

None of that really matters, though, right? What matters is how soul music ranked.

Here are the highlights:

#98 - Ray Charles, I Can't Stop Loving You

#87 - The Emotions, Best of my Love

#82 - Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly With His Song

#65 - Marvin Gaye, I Heard It Through The Grapevine

#62 - Diana Ross, Upside Down

#61 Dionne Warwick and Friends, That's What Friends Are For

#59 - Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, Ebony and Ivory

#32 - Marvin Gaye, Let's Get It On

#27 - Bobby Lewis, Tossin' and Turnin'

#13 - Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross, Endless Love

Not a bad haul, right? Admittedly, some of these tracks stretch (okay, smash) the definition of "soul" as generally used on this blog, but I had a complicated formula of my own: if the artist in question had, at one point, a viable soul career, then - for the purposes of this list ONLY - their later hits count too.

(I'm looking at you, Stevie and Diana. Don't think this means you're forgiven.)

Lists like these are always a little dispiriting - they remind me how popular some relatively inferior music has been, and how obscure, in comparison, some of the greatest of the greats are.

To wit: How did Andy Gibb score two separate entries (as a solo artist!), while Aretha Franklin doesn't appear even once?

But then I remind myself that if gems like Flack's Killing Me Softly and Marvin's Grapevine made the all-time Hot 100, there's a good chance that all is right with the world after all...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wilson Pickett, The Soul Clan, and the Limits of Modern Technology

Have you ever wished or imagined that your favourite celebrities (the cast of a tv show, or the members of a rock band) were truly BFFs in real life?

All too often, the fans dream it, but the reality is something else entirely - which is why, in Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music", I was so fascinated to read about The Soul Clan.

The Soul Clan was the name adopted by a group of Southern Soul artists - all friends - who intended to record together. (And no, in 1960s Memphis, I don't believe the "clan" reference was a coincidence.) The key players seem to have been Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Otis Redding, but the project never really got off the ground for a variety of reasons - including (most important of all) Otis Redding's death.

I was captivated by the idea not only because it offered potential proof of a true friendship between my idols, but also because of the tantalizing, tragic possibilities it offered: What if? What if the gang had gotten together in time? Better yet, what if that plane had never gone down? What would The Soul Clan have produced?

This week, on one of those satellite TV music stations, I came across a lament for The Soul Clan, straight from the source: a track off Wilson Pickett's 1999 album, It's Harder Now. The track is called "Soul Survivor" and it looks back on the glory days of Southern Soul.

"I remember 1965," Pickett sings, "Everybody was still alive."

Sure, the song won't be winning any prizes for lyrics, but it made me realize that of course, I'm not the only one wondering what could have been. I'd like to post it here, but - for the first time ever - YouTube has failed to come up with the soul track I'm seeking. Not only that, but none of the online lyrics banks have it, either! I'm a little bit shocked. After all, Pickett was well past his prime in 1999, when the song was released, but he was hardly obscure. Was he?

This marks the first time in this project that I've hit a technology wall, and I thought it was worth noting. Meanwhile, you can hear a brief sample of the song on the album's Amazon page.

Sorry, but it's the best I can do!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sounds Like New Orleans: The Meters

At one point featuring two of the Neville Brothers, the Meters were an early funk group based in New Orleans. In 1975, at arguably the peak of their popularity, they released an album called Fire On The Bayou.

Here's the title track:

R.I.P. Jerry Wexler

It's been a sad week for soul fans.

First Isaac Hayes passed away, and now comes the news that Atlantic Records giant Jerry Wexler has died at 91.

You can take your pick of Wexler's accomplishments: he reportedly coined the term 'rhythm and blues', presided over key phases in the careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others, brought Dusty Springfield to town to record 'Dusty in Memphis', and was a major player in bringing the Stax and Muscle Shoals sounds to the wider world.

Oh, and for any non-soul fans out there: he also signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic, and worked with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and more.

Here are a couple of crucial Wexler-related clips.

One of Ray Charles' earliest hits at Atlantic, 'I Got A Woman':

'I Never Loved A Man' was one of two tracks produced when Wex brought Aretha to FAME for the infamous Muscle Shoals session:

Word has it that Wexler once said he wanted only two words inscribed on his tombstone: "More bass." Rest in peace, Jerry.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More On Isaac Hayes, from The Root

While many Isaac Hayes obits focus on the Theme from Shaft, or on the Scientology controversy that led to Hayes' departure from South Park, this item from The Root (rightly) emphasizes his early role as a songwriter at Stax, and on the enormous impact of Hot Buttered Soul.

An Ode To Hot Buttered Genius

As an aside, it seems that most of my generation only knows Isaac Hayes as "Chef" - and that makes me nearly as sad as his death did.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

R.I.P. Isaac Hayes

After a long silence, it's a sad occasion that brings me back to the blog. Isaac Hayes has died, at age 65.

Best of the obits to come in a day or two, but in the meantime here are some favourite Hayes tracks.

Before he got into the performance side of things, Isaac Hayes was a songwriter at Stax. Alongside partner David Porter, he wrote most of Sam and Dave's greatest hits, including Hold On I'm Comin:

Stax's release of Hayes' first album, Hot Buttered Soul, was almost an afterthought. It turned out to be one of their greatest successes. Here's Walk On By:

Hayes won both an Oscar and a couple of Grammys for the Theme from Shaft:

Later in his career, Hayes voiced the singing Chef from South Park. Here's "Simultaneous":

Rest in peace, Isaac Hayes. There aren't many soul stars who can claim to have had a greater influence on popular music as a whole.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Dan Penn Files: Do Right Woman

As I wrote awhile back in this World Hum blog post, one of the best parts of my visit to Muscle Shoals was the songwriters' corner at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. There, I had the chance to see Dan Penn's original scribblings of the lyrics to 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' while listening to Aretha Franklin belt it out on a vintage jukebox. Classic, right?

Here's Penn's own version of arguably his most famous song:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cover Art: What A Man / Whatta Man

Salt'n'Pepa's 'Whatta Man' blurs the lines between cover and sample, borrowing heavily from Linda Lyndell but still remaining its own song.

Here's the original, playing in the background of a sketchy homemade video:

And here's the version I grew up on:

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sasha Frere-Jones on Usher and the Audible Pain of Soul

Interesting few lines from the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, in a review of Usher's new album:

"If Usher is considered part of soul and R. & B., he is a quiet revolutionary, stripping out the pain audible in the work of so many great male soul singers: Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, R. Kelly. Catharsis has no place in Usher’s work, no matter the topic. The blood is all offstage, and Usher plays our Greek chorus, moralizing and reporting. It’s an easier gig than having to do the wet work. (R. & B. after “Confessions” has continued in this denatured, slight vein, from the cyborg come-ons of Ciara to Chris Brown’s Usher-lite routine.)"

You can read the full review here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

James Brown - Please Please Please

I'm fresh off a trip to New York City, where I stayed just around the corner from Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.

The Apollo's played host to plenty of big names over the years, but possibly its most famous act was James Brown, on the night he recorded his phenomenal, game-changing album, Live at the Apollo (1962) - called the "most apocalyptic non-gospel album ever recorded" by Peter Guralnick, and "almost certainly the greatest live album ever" by Peter Shapiro, author of the Rough Guide to Soul and R&B.

This clip isn't from the Apollo, but it's a taste of Brown's early live vibe.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sounds Like New Orleans: Aaron Neville

I'm headed to New Orleans in a short six weeks - I'll be spending the summer there, eating, drinking, and taking in as much live music as I can. So over the next little while, I'll try to collect some classic NOLA soul sounds here.

Of course, the city's better known for jazz, blues, and brass bands than it is for soul, but that's like saying New York City is better known for Italian and Chinese than it is for Polish food - well, sure, but there's still plenty of excellent perogies to be had!

Here's a classic to start things off: Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is":

I missed a chance to see the Neville Brothers live a few years ago here in Ottawa, so I'm hoping, now that they've made their big return to the city, that I might get a chance to catch them this summer.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Soul Stirrers - Jesus Done Just What He Said

By some definitions, soul music is gospel with secular lyrics. Sam Cooke was one of the first gospel superstars to make the cross-over to the profane world of pop, and when you compare his solo efforts to his early work with The Soul Stirrers, you can see the connection. Here's "Jesus Done Just What He Said":

Friday, May 16, 2008

Soul Soundtracks: The Commitments

This 1991 release, about a soul cover band in Dublin, offers not just a great soul movie soundtrack - it is a great soul album, full stop. The band draws heavily from the Southern soul tradition, covering Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, James Carr, Aretha's two tracks from the infamous Muscle Shoals session, and more.

Call it blasphemy if you like, but sometimes I have trouble deciding which I like better: the originals, or the covers by The Commitments.

Here's Mustang Sally:

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cover Art: American Juniors

Remember the short-lived reality TV show American Juniors?

It hit the airwaves in the early days of the American Idol franchise (think Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard era) and the idea was to form an all-kid pop group out of the 5 remaining contestants, who could range in age (if I rememer right) from 6 to 16.

The show exposed a ton of young talent to the world - but it also exposed a lot of scary stage parents, and the necessary pre-commercial break suspense-mongering made a few too many contestants cry. The experiment wasn't repeated for a second season.

Like Idol with its annual Motown night, Juniors drew heavily on the relatively child-friendly content of the 1960s. (You can't exactly have six-year-olds covering How Many Licks, now can you?) I guess if there's one good thing about these shows, it's that, in their own karaoke-night way, they keep some of the classics alive for another generation.

Here's Lucy Hale, doing "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" - note Lamont Dozier and Mary Wilson on the judges panel.

See also: Morgan Burke's take on Build Me Up Buttercup, and 11-year-old Taylor Thompson's cover of Proud Mary.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Muscle Shoals Scene

This afternoon I'm wrestling with a travel story about my recent trip to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It's hard for me to explain the excitement of visiting a place that's simultaneously so important and so irrelevant. The Shoals, after all, is an unattractive backwater - but that's precisely what makes what happened there at Fame with Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham and all the rest so compelling.

Here's a fantastic bit from Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, summing up the Muscle Shoals scene:

"What you had was half a dozen enormously talented twenty-year-olds thrust upon the world stage while stranded in the backwoods of Alabama. They were too hip for their environment but too comfortable in it ever to want to break out. Dan was still storming around the countryside with the Fame rhythm section in a hearse, now billed as Dan Penn and the Pallbearers. Donnie Fritts, who had already moved to Nashville part-time to pursue an independent career as a songwriter ("I was the only one not to sign with Rick. Rick signed everybody who could write a fucking poem."), maintained an apartment in Florence that was affectionately known as Funk City and was painted black. There were names for everyone: Guy Bingo and Gene Audit, Mr. and Mrs. Weenie, and Sky High (that was Donnie), and when squares showed up on the scene, it was Ozzie and Harriet time. Donnie and Spooner and Dan hung out together constantly, referring to themselves without blinking as "a bunch of niggers."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

In Defence of Motown: Marvin Gaye

Anyone who figures Motown had nothing to offer but watered-down pop aimed squarely at the white suburbs must not have been paying much attention to Marvin Gaye. Are you really going to argue that this man had no real soul?

Here's one of my favourite Marvin tracks, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) - fronted by a surprisingly high-quality fan vid.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Bar-Kays - Soul Finger

This hilarious video becomes less funny when you remind yourself that the Bar-Kays went down with Otis Redding on December 10, 1967, and that only Ben Cauley and James Alexander (who missed the flight) survived. Sad now? Me too. But this track should cheer us up.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Dan Penn Files: Don't Give Up On Me

One of the many reasons I get all worked up about Dan Penn is, he's still alive and kicking, and even still writing and performing from time to time. When most of your favorite musicians are long gone, the prospect of being able to see one live is enough to propel him or her to the top of the list!

Last time around I posted one of Penn's earliest songs; now here's one of his most recent, a composition that became the title track of Solomon Burke's star-studded 2002 comeback album, Don't Give Up On Me.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Devil and Ike Turner

Ike Turner's a tough character to fit neatly into a category. He's a Delta bluesman to some, a rock pioneer to others. And you can't deny, particularly in his Ike-and-Tina days, that there's a healthy dose of soul in there, too.

After Ike passed away back in early December, Slate ran this brilliant, speculative obituary, in which author Donald Fagen wonders what our protagonist might have asked for, in exchange for his soul, at that famous Delta crossroads.

Here's my own, much shorter, obit for Ike Turner.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Soul Soundtracks: Now and Then

Every few years, soul makes a sort-of comeback in the guise of a modern movie soundtrack, and I'd like to honour those albums here.

First up is an old junior high slumber-party standby, Now and Then. Sure, the CD includes plenty of pop cheese from the likes of The Archies and Tony Orlando & Dawn, but it also features a couple of pretty decent Jackson 5 tracks, one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs (Signed, Sealed, Delivered) and Band of Gold by Freda Payne, seen here with vintage vinyl crackle included:

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Cover Art: D'Angelo - Cruisin'

D'Angelo pays tribute to his quiet storm predecessors with this take on Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin":

Monday, April 28, 2008

Clarence Carter - Patches

Sure, it's no Slip Away. It's gimmicky and cheesy, and maybe it's as much melodrama as soul. But this track never fails to make me sing along.

"Patches, I'm depending on you, son, to pull the family through..."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Being James Brown

I've been reading an anthology called The Best Music Writing 2007, and it's fantastic. My mind has been opened, and then wrenched even a little wider, to the possibilities of music criticism. Who knew it could be so varied and compelling?

Anyhow, the absolute gem of the collection - although there are some doozies in there - is Jonathan Lethem's epic portrait, Being James Brown. I was thrilled to find it available for free in the Rolling Stone archives. Take the time to read the whole thing; it's worth it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Defence of Motown: The Marvelettes

Southern Soul types (both fans and industry people) always enjoy taking the same shot at their Motown rivals, arguing that Detroit's finest acts had been polished up and watered down for the benefit of a white audience. In other words: there's no authentic soul in Hitsville, USA.

Certainly most Motown acts don't have the raw dynamism of the early Stax years, but I don't think that makes them a bunch of sell-out hacks as some people like to suggest. Case in point: the Marvelettes. With their unvarnished vocals and (slightly) edgier subject matter (compare the Supremes' "Baby Love" with the Marvelettes' "Don't Mess With Bill"), they've always managed to bring a ragged touch to that polished Motown sound. They're my favourite girl group, and I'd put them up against Carla Thomas any day. Here's "Too Many Fish in the Sea":

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jackie Wilson - Higher and Higher

I'm feeling a little down tonight, and the only cure is this up-tempo live version of Jackie Wilson's classic, complete with vintage stage outfit and wicked-awesome dance moves.

The Dan Penn Files: Is A Bluebird Blue?

Dan Penn is one of my favourite characters in the soul story. As Fame's Rick Hall told Peter Guralnick in Sweet Soul Music: "Here was this kid, white, sixteen years old, singing like Ray Charles, just in love with black music. He was the real thing. He wasn't a rip-off or a fake. He knew more about black music than the rest of us put together." When Penn showed up in at Hall's fledgling studio in Muscle Shoals, he brought a song he'd written with him: "Is a bluebird blue?" which later became a hit for Conway Twitty.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Notes from a roadtrip through America's musical heartland

I recently completed a one-month roadtrip through the South, focused (for the most part) on learning more about (and writing about) the history of soul, blues, rock and country in the area. The theory is that fusing my travel writing - where I already have a toe-hold in the industry -with music writing will provide me with clips to help break in more fully on the music side of things. We shall see...

In any case, here are a few items published over at World Hum as I went:

Jackson On My Mind - About my preparations for the trip, and trying to figure out which "Jackson town" was the one Johnny and June sing about.

Do Right Woman: 'Worth the 160-Mile Detour From Nashville' - On seeing Dan Penn's original 'Do Right' lyrics at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Burning, Burning, Burning and Nothing Can Cool Me? - Sadly, the "hunk a burning tenders" at the Heartbreak Hotel weren't actually that spicy.

Sweet Soul Music

Let's kick things off with Arthur Conley's Stax Records classic, Sweet Soul Music:

Welcome to the Soul Archive

I spend a lot of time digging up old 60s soul/motown/r&b clips on YouTube, and on the (increasingly rare) occasion that I find a good piece of music writing dedicated to the soul era (sadly, these days, mostly found in the obituaries) I treasure it. So I thought it would make sense to collect all these precious links in one spot, where fellow soul-lovers can make use of them, too.