Friday Five: Ladies of Soul

Aretha Franklin is going to live forever.

Not literally, of course.  But centuries from now, some people somewhere on Earth will know who she is.  They will be listening to and talking about Aretha Franklin.  Not only is she a significant figure in the history of 20th century popular music, but she’s recognized as such by just about everybody who knows who she is.

Many more centuries in the future, there will come a time when the aliens visit our completely destroyed planet and start to rummage through our cultural remains in order to retrieve artifacts for some kind of museum on their home planet.  Whether they know enough of the larger context to make informed and discerning decisions or not, who knows.  What I do know is that if they stumble across any of the following recordings, they just might name another woman “queen of soul.”

The following five songs are recorded by women who made some of the most amazing blues, R&B, and soul music of the last century…and they’re not named Aretha.

5. Irma Thomas, “Time Is On My Side” (1964)
Both Thomas and the Rolling Stones covered this song in 1964. It was originally written by Jerry Ragovoy (the man behind “The Hit Factory” recording studio) and recorded by jazz musician Kai Winding in 1963. Irma Thomas covered it before the Stones. The original was light on lyrics (“Time is on my side” and “You’ll come running back” were the only lyrics in Ragovoy’s version) and so songwriter Jimmy Norman expanded the song for Thomas’ recording. In a sense, the Rolling Stones covered her.

4. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, “Humble Me” (2006)
Born in 1956 in Augusta, Georgia, and raised primarily in New York City, Sharon Jones grew up listening to some of the best music ever made. While she tried to break into the music industry for most of her life, it wasn’t until she was 40 years old that it ended up working out for her. Known for her stupendous live performances, Jones passed away from cancer in 2016.  She was only 60.  She leaves us with 20 years of records crafted in the sound style of the best of the 60s and 70s, and made all the better by her talent.  This song, a play on the Otis Redding sound, is among my favorites.

3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (1945)
She was the first bonafide gospel recording star who climbed to fame during the Depression.  Her fame was the product of her moving voice but even more moving rhythm guitar.  She is often hailed as one of the most influential people of modern US music, one of a small group most responsible for giving birth to rock n’ roll. This 1945 hit of hers–featuring her electric guitar play–is some of the best evidence of that.

2. Ruth Brown, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1952)
I love Ruth Brown.  Aside from her music (some of her songs I knew though I knew not who she was), I first came to know her through “The History of Rock n’ Roll,” a 1995 PBS series.  She was one of the stand out interviewees in the series, not only because of who she was but because she was there, through it all.  I’m never disappointed when I put on her music, a constant source of new “discoveries” and growing appreciation for her timeless classics. This was the first pop hit for this habitual maker of R&B greatness.

1. Big Maybelle, “Candy” (1956)
Mabel Louise Smith only lived 47 years on this planet. A gospel singer by upbringing (as were most), she struggled here and there in her recording career, achieving her greatest success in the 50s, when she changed her name to Big Maybelle and began recording for Okeh Records. “Candy” is perhaps her most well-regarded hit (it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999). She’s also known as the original performer of the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” a song she recorded before Jerry Lee Lewis made it famous.

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40 years

I was listening to an interview with Priscilla Presley and Jerry Butler this morning and both were talking about the frustration and disappointment Elvis felt with regards to his movie career. He would read scripts and throw them across the room, deriding their quality and declaring that he wasn’t going to do it anymore.

But Elvis had little choice in the matter. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, had locked the King into these contracts without much regard for his artistic or creative desires. Ever the promoter, Parker just sought out the best ways for Elvis to make money while protecting the image of the star he used to make money.

In Priscilla’s telling, that’s one of the reasons Elvis got so excited about his television special in 1968, the event that has become forever known as his “’68 Comeback Special.” This was something he knew, and something he could use to express his creative self, maybe even enjoy control for a change.

On this 40th anniversary of his death it feels like an especially good event to remember. In light of the story above, the ’68 special carries more than just the excitement of the “comeback”–the raw, stripped down energy that reminds folks why he was who he was. It also carries with it a little bit of loss, of what could have been, of what he was never allowed to be. That, to me, is so much of the memory of the icon that is Elvis.

In this present moment of a white supremacist president and a resurgent white nationalism, there’s another way it all seems a little more appropriate right now, too.

The Beatles and my boy

My son must have been about 1 when we started playing The Beatle’s 1 album for him. We had it in the car CD player for about 4 months straight when he was 3 and his little sister was 1. They’d sing along with their favorites, even though they really couldn’t pronounce much. An early fascination with the music of George Harrison, through YouTube videos of “The Concert for George” and “The Concert for Bangladesh” (which he was eventually given for Christmas), aided The Beatles process in our family life.

In short, the sounds of The Beatles are burned deep into their brains, in ways that go beyond recall and memory. After a few years of not listening to much of their music in the family car, over the last few months, my three kids have been listening to more of them. We brought the 1 album back into the car again (after a prolonged run of the Hamilton and Moana soundtracks) and, thanks to the movie Boss Baby, which featured the song “Blackbird,” even the youngest Summers Sandoval is grooving to the fab four.

This resurgence of The Beatles in our familial life has re-inspired my son’s obsession with the group and its members, that obsession he had when he was about 2, only now it comes in the form of an 11 year-old who can animate that obsession with Google searches and online music at will.

This also coincided with our purchase of a new family vehicle, a family van to be precise, which came with a free 3-month subscription to Sirius XM radio. After lamenting that there wasn’t a Beatles station on the service, a few weeks ago we started hearing an advertisement for an upcoming Beatles station on channel 18, scheduled to premiere on Thursday, May 18 at 9:09AM, eastern time.

So what did me and my boy do this morning?

We woke up at the crack of dawn, got ready for the day, and jumped into the car at 6:00AM so that we could be driving and listening to channel 18 at the moment The Beatles station premiered on Sirius XM. We stopped and got some bagels (he stayed in the car to keep listening), drove around town, and enjoyed some great music together.

In case you’re interested, the first song they played was “All You Need is Love.”

Friday Five: Sax Solo Rock

I have to give Jack Black credit for inspiring this week’s list. His Instagram account includes regular posts reflecting his love of music. A couple of days ago he spotlighted the sax solo from the song “Urgent” by Foreigner.

“Urgent” comes from the album 4, which was produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange. It’s a different sound for the rockers that had cut their chops on earlier songs like “Hot Blooded,” “Cold As Ice,” and “Head Games.” As the story goes, they wanted a “Junior Walker sounding sax solo” and ended up with Junior Walker himself, who was performing nearby.

What Junior Walker does on this song is nothing short of massive. I’m not sure there’s a better example of a saxophone solo that’s more rock.  For goodness sakes, Walker stands in for what should be a guitar solo, and he does it with both soul and dirty rockin’ chops.

It got me thinking about other songs that have massively successful sax solos and that still manage to maintain their rockness.

And so here we go…

5. “Shotgun” (Junior Walker & the All Stars)
This is likely the song that inspired the desire for a “Junior Walker sounding sax solo” in “Urgent.” And I’ll be the first to admit it’s probably a bit of a cheat to call this just “rock.” The 1965 hit is classic rock and roll, which is really just a way of saying it moves like nobody’s business. It’s a miraculous number, driven by Walker’s sax and his soulful brilliance.

4. “Money” (Pink Floyd)
When I studied abroad in England I met a generation of Brits who believed (passionately) that Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon was the greatest album ever made. I’ve met my fair share of others who’ve felt the same. I’ve never been one of those people. I like Pink Floyd, I’m just not crazy about them. For the purposes of this list, though, there’s no way to avoid them. Fans might rank the classic “Us and Them” as a better sax song, but that’s a bit too soft and meditative for me. “Money” kicks off side 2 of the album, and it knows how to get up in everybody’s business with Dick Parry’s tasty solo.

3. Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones)
This is the lead off track to the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers. It’s their first album without Brian Jones and their first of the 70s. “Brown Sugar” is such a brilliant reflection of the past and the future for them. Recorded in Muscle Shoals before much of the rest of the album (I think it’s actually from 1969), it’s rhythm and blues to be sure, but also undeniably rock. It’s a standout for the lyrics by Mick Jagger, but also the way Keith Richards’ guitar and Bobby Keys’ sax play with each other to make the song what it is. There’s not many Stones songs where Keys is more instrumental (pardon the pun).

2. “Young Americans” (David Bowie)
Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans was a big hit for him, as was the title track, released a month before the album. While it may not have impressed the critics, it’s an enjoyable album, a more soulful sounding Bowie with clear nods to US sounds. I’ve always been more of a Ziggy Stardust-phase fan, on the whole, but there are plenty of David Bowie tracks after that that I love. “Young Americans” is certainly one of them. The sax–played here by David Sanborn–is a big part of that. The interplay between Bowie’s voice, his background singers (who are pretty front and center), and the soulful Sanborn (who became a successful jazz performer in the years after) makes it one of the master’s persistent hits.

1. “Born to Run” (Bruce Springsteen)
I’m not a Bruce fanatic. I honestly had never heard of him before his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A was released. And while I liked it, I just never felt the need to learn more about him until much later in life. It must have been about 20 years after the release of Born to Run (1975) before I discovered it. That might have been the start of my appreciation for his talents. [My friend, Steven Rubio, who certainly is a fanatic, has helped nurture that admiration, just by being a big fan. It’s kind of catchy at some point. That brought me to his earlier stuff, in particular 1973’s Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J. which I am also very fond of.] I know hardcore fans will say “Jungleland” is the best Bruce sax song. I can’t argue. Clarence Clemons was a master, and he shows it in the sprawling, emotional song. But I think “Born to Run” is a clearer example of a rock song, and a masterful rock-sax solo. The song is quite simply “BIG”–it’s Springsteen’s attempt to create his own Phil Spector-like wall of sound–and it’s a success at every level. The nostalgic lyrics, the orchestration of rock and roll instruments, and, of course, Clemons’ massive sax. You just can’t go wrong.

Friday Five: 1955

I’ve got 1955 on my mind this week, mostly because I’m getting ready to teach the Montgomery bus boycotts.

In the popular consciousness of most Americans, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the boycotts are the “start” of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a little simplistic, historically speaking. It ignores the deep roots and activities of the Black Freedom Struggle that preceded Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. It also ignores the key support structures–like the Women’s Political Council–that made the boycotts possible and, ultimately, successful.

At the same time, the boycotts are clearly a watershed moment in our history. Simply put, everything would be different after 1955. I don’t want to suggest that the history of popular music is as important as the history of our struggles for justice, but, if you think about, popular music was on the verge of its own watershed then, too.

Late in 1955 Sam Philips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA. The next year he’d become a national sensation. Elvis changed the course of music. Part of the story of rock and roll is the gradual assimilation of regional musical styles into an increasingly “national” sound. Another part of it is the growing integration of “white” and “black” musical styles. Elvis was emblematic of both those dynamics. Both were happening without him, to be sure. (Each had a lot to do with the commercialization of music in the 50s.) But both were also catapulted forward when he hit the scene.

That’s how I like to think about 1955 in music–rock and roll on the verge of a major change. Like the history of the boycotts, though, that’s also a bit short-sighted. When you look at 1955 in music, you see all the dynamics typically associated with the “Elvis era” already at play. African American musical styles weren’t as formidable on the Billboard charts, but foundational sounds of what we call rock and roll were already changing the musical world.

Here are some of songs of 1955, both the chart-toppers and world changers.

5. “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford)
This was the number one song the day Rosa Park was arrested. It sounds like a Disney movie to me, catchy and well-produced. I think it says a lot about this moment in popular music that a country guy tops the charts with a snappy tune about coal miners.

4. “Rock Around the Clock” (Bill Haley And His Comets)
A former country singer, Haley signed with Decca records and, along with other white musicians, recorded this 12-bar blues song that jumps and swings with the best of the era. As the original theme song to the show “Happy Days” it always feels like the anthem of the 1950s to me.

3. “Flip, Slop, and Fly” (Big Joe Turner)
There are numerous “bridges” between the world of blues, jazz, and rock and roll. Big Joe Turner might be the biggest. This “jump blues” hit, release in February 1955 from the Atlantic label, is proof of that.

2. “Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard)
Little Richard perfected his performance of “Tutti Frutti” as a young man on the “Chittlin Circuit.” A song about gay sex, it was cleaned up for his 1955 recording, but hidden in its history are the roots of rock and roll–Southern, campy, bluesy, and queer. The song was released in December, making his unique style and sound part of the national sound for generations to come. It’s a powerful song.

1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)
Chuck Berry’s first hit single is often called “the first rock and roll song.” When I hear that first little guitar intro, well, it’s sounds like he’s getting ready to let loose a beast. The song, one of the greatest R&B songs ever, is a take off of a country fiddle tune named “Ida Red.” What Berry made it into was a whole new world.

Friday Five: The Obama Era

This is a busy time of year for me. I’m barely keeping afloat in a rising sea of work. Much of it is good work, work I enjoy, like teaching and advising. Some of it is exciting work, like my current research project and the exhibit I’m working on. And a good share of it is bureaucratic, the work that never seems to end.

But in the midst of it all, I’m moved by the words of Ramsey Clark. Mr. Clark is still going strong at 89 years. Clark was the Assistant Attorney General of the US under JFK and LBJ (1961-1965), the Deputy Attorney General under LBJ (1965-1967), and the 66th Attorney General of the US (1967-69) under LBJ. He was a champion of civil rights (he supervised the drafting of the Voting Rights Act) who became a staunch antiwar activist, after leaving the Justice Department.

About a year ago, during a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), he talked about his slow transformation surrounding the war in Vietnam. He said:

As a citizen, I made one mistake in government, and that is – I worked too hard on the task at hand, on my responsibilities. And didn’t keep up with events that democracy – every citizen has an obligation to keep up with events, like a war. So when I finally looked at it I was appalled. It wasn’t that sudden, obviously.

I remember i had a very close friend named Barefoot Sanders… He was my deputy, until Johnson stole him and took him to the White House. The point was that Barefoot followed the war. And he was tortured by it. And I was just thinking about what i was doing, in the Department of Justice, but we lived about 3 houses away from each other, so we’d drive in and back with each other nearly every single day. And that was my basic exposure to the war. He’d be saying how awful it was. And I was thinking about how awful the Civil Rights Situation was.

The moral is we all have an obligation to be involved in the critical moral issues of our time. And not get so self-absorbed in some other, all-consuming thing.

Democracy depends on that. And as a citizen, you do your duty to be aware, and have an opinion on major political issues that must be made.

Tonight, what Mr. Ramsey said feels especially right.

Before my kids went to bed, I showed them the White House website. I wanted them to see it, to make a memory of what that page looked like on the last night of the Obama presidency. There’s a lot of things this presidency did that I don’t agree with. There’s a lot they did that I do agree with, too.

I don’t put too much stake in any politician. I don’t think they’re the solution to any of our collective problems. But, on the whole, I’m proud that Obama was my president. I’m proud of how he served.

Tomorrow, around noon, there’s going to be a totally different page on that site, one representing a man with whom I have more disagreements than I can count. He doesn’t make me proud; to be honest, he disgusts me and makes me fearful of what the next four years will bring. But here’s the thing: Even though the new president doesn’t represent me or my values he is my president.

I don’t mean that as a rebuke to the #notmypresident folks. I share their values and their feelings. But it is a simple fact that tomorrow this man will be the president of my country.

That gives me both the right and the responsibility to do what I can, as part of a larger community of like-minded folks, to keep him in check and hold him accountable to the values and the issues we care about. Mr. Clark helped remind me of that. We’ve all got a job to do.

So today, as “The Obama Era” comes to an end and another era begins, may this new era be one of community, one of democracy, and one of justice.

5. “The Weight”–Aretha Franklin (1969)
4. “So Much Trouble in the World”–Bob Marley (1979)
3. “Superpower”–Beyoncé (ft. Frank Ocean) (2013)
2. “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”–Method Man (ft. Mary J. Blige) (1995)
1. “Sinnerman”–Nina Simone (1965)

Friday Five: Mandolin

Sometimes all you need to make a classic is a little bit of mandolin.

5. “The Battle of Evermore” (Led Zeppelin, 1971)
This might be the epitome of mandolin rock. What’s most impressive, I think, is that it’s the vocals that elevates the mandolin, turning some kind of play on an English country song into a a bonafide Zeppelin groove.

4. “Ripple” (Grateful Dead, 1970)
Measured in quantity, the mandolin is a small feature in this beloved Dead track (originally released as the B-side to “Truckin'”). Along with the playful guitars, simple drums, Jerry Garcia’s voice, and the ending choir sing-a-long, it’s part of a whole that’s bigger than the parts.

3. “Maggie May” (Rod Stewart, 1971)
Ray Jackson’s mandolin was an add-on to this pop hit, Stewart’s first big hit as a solo act. The mandolin compliments the album’s guitar preface, as well as Ron Wood’s 12-strong intro, not to mention the way it finds a musical hook to take us back to a more innocent time of youth.

2. “St. Teresa” (Joan Osborne, 1995)
Mandolin is not just for the early 70s! No, it was also a feature of the cafe sounds of the singer-songwriter mid-90s, the Gen x reboot of the early 70s. The first track off of Joan Osborne’s debut album is proof of that, as well as her creative string play.

1. “Losing My Religion” (R.E.M., 1991)
This is the pinnacle of Gen X mandolin. Perhaps that’s not saying much. But it’s a foundational part of this massive hit, the song that finished R.E.M.’s transformation from a “college rock” band into a popular, mainstream act. The feeling it provides the song is as important as the cryptic imagery of the video.