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!