Friday Five: Clapton the Guest

I watched the 2017 documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars on Showtime this week. I enjoy just about anything related to Clapton, and this was a mix of both interesting, sad, and even sadder aspects of his life and career. It’s mostly a story of addiction, really, and you’re left wondering what could have been if one of the world’s greatest guitarists wasn’t constantly at war with himself and his talent.

Anyway, there were some great stories related to Clapton playing guest guitar on amazing recordings by other people. Looking up a bit more of his history as a guest guitarist, I thought it would make an interesting Friday Five.

5. “Here in the Dark” (Taj Mahal, 1996)
Taj Mahal and Clapton–what’s not to like?

4. “That’s the Way God Planned It (Parts 1 & 2)” (Billy Preston, 1969)
Billy Preston was charmed. He doesn’t just have has Eric Clapton on guitar. He has George Harrison (guitar), Keith Richards (bass), Ginger Baker (drums), and Doris Troy (vocals) backing him, too.

3. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles, 1968)
Undoubtedly, this is Clapton’s most famous guest appearance, on a song written and sung by his most famous friend for whom he played with and recorded for often. (I don’t know how long this video will be up.)

2. “Wang-Dang-Doodle” (Howlin’ Wolf, 1970)
This might be a bit of a cheat since Clapton was one big reason this album got made. Counted as a “super session” album, Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts (among others) brought the blues master into Olympic Studios in London and got to play blues with him. Here, Howlin’ Wolf sings a classic from the great Willie Dixon. It’s a treat from one of the best blues albums you can buy.

1. “Good to Me as I Am to You” (Aretha Franklin, 1968)
This recording is the inspiration for this list. It’s covered well, in context, in the documentary. What they don’t mention is that this is from the Lady Soul album, the giver of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” It’s a masterful work–for both Aretha and Eric–on a masterful work of an album.


Friday Five: Covering Otis

Who’s the man? Otis Redding is the man.

Proof of this truth lies in the fact that when other musicians listen to Otis they are so moved by what they hear that they become infected with his soul. The only thing they want to do is what Otis does. But most of them also know that they can’t do what Otis does. They’re simply not as good, or as soulful, and so they translate what they felt into something that is true to them.

Here are five great covers of great Otis Redding songs. Each one tries to harness something from the master, but most do so in ways unique to themselves.

5. “Hard to Handle” (Black Crowes)
Chris Robinson and the Black Crowes were young and stupid in 1990, when they released their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. Lucky they were massively talented, too. The album’s first single “Hard to Handle” and, in some ways, Robinson tries to one-up Otis. Wrapped up in the bluesy, rock style of the band, what could have been a failed impersonation turns into something fantastic.

4. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (Ike & Tina Turner)
If there’s a duo who could give Otis a run for his money when it comes to soul it just might be Ike and Tina Turner. In this cover (and in many ways some of their greatest performances were covers), both Tina and Ike change it up to convert a sweet ballad into something gritty and pained.

3. “Security” (Mavis Staples)
Mavis Staples knows what she can do. Here she takes the original and turns it into something more. Part of that is the guitar lick that drives the cover (and gives us the feel of times) but the rest is Ms. Staples’ powerful vocals elevating us to new heights.

2. “Try A Little Tenderness” (Frank Sinatra)
There are many covers of this song–perhaps the greatest performance Otis ever gave us–but most try to do what Otis did and, in so doing, they fall short. Sinatra takes romantic lyrics and a sweet melody and makes it all his.

1. “Respect” (Aretha Franklin)
Let’s not beat around the bush–this is the greatest cover of all time and one of the greatest things ever recorded. Aretha is the exception to the rule in that she can do what Otis can do…and then some. Here she gives us some of that, converting a song about an upset man into a Muscle Shoals infused feminist and civil rights anthem. It’s nothing short of greatness!

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.