Born in Mississippi and immersed in the sounds of the delta, the legendary Elmore James (1918-1963) learned to play both acoustic and electric guitar at an early age. After the war, he began a professional career in music that brought him to Chicago by the early 50s. There he participated in the birth of some of the most enduring electric blues music ever, earning the title “King of the Slide Guitar” and recording classics like 1959’s “The Sky is Crying.”
Otis Redding’s third album, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, was released on September 15, 1965. It took less than 24 hours to record, with Otis and the Stax house band of Booker T. & the M.G.’s (joined by Isaac Hayes on piano and an ensemble of horn players including the Memphis Horns) entering the studio on July 9 and wrapping up on the 10th.
The album contains an assortment of covers, mostly songs written and recorded previously by Sam Cooke. Cooke was Redding’s idol. His death the previous December brought a palpable level of emotion to those songs. The standout from the album, at least in my opinion, would be a song written by Otis and Jerry Butler. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” would be the first big hit for the big ‘O’.
Huddie William Ledbetter (January 1888 or 1889-December 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was born and raised in Louisiana. He played the guitar at a young age, and attempted to make a living by playing it during his adult years, years spent mostly in Texas.
His career as a musician was regularly interrupted. Lead Belly was in and out of Southern jails, prisons, and labor camps for much of his adult life. He was convicted of attempted homicide in 1930 and sentenced to the infamous Angola Prison Farm in Loyisiana.
That’s where he was in 1933 when pioneering musicologist, archivist, and folklorist John Lomax, accompanied by his son Alan, visited “the Farm” to record African American musicians for posterity.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Here he is performing “House of the Rising Sun.”
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) is a “classic” in the Summers Sandoval household. It was the first movie my first two kids ever saw in a movie theater, and became part of our “regular rotation” in the spring of 2010 when the DVD came out.
You might be surprised to learn that relentlessly repetitive viewing has its perks. When the movie in question has some talent behind it (and this one does) you start to discover little bits here and there that would otherwise be missed. Some are clever, some funny, some dramatic and complex. In a movie paying homage to New Orleans jazz culture, some are downright educational.
I had never heard of Mr. Sidney Bechet (New Orleans, 1897-1959) until his name popped up in a lyric to the song “When I’m Human,” featured in the above movie. When I learned more about him, that ignorance became startling. Bechet is one of the fathers of New Orleans jazz. A contemporary of Louis Armstrong, Bechet was a virtuoso jazz saxophonist, known for his amazingly expressive solos. He also seemed to have lived quite a personal and professional life. A taste of his bio can be found at the website of The Sidney Bechet Society.
It’s sad that a Disney cartoon brought this music to my and my kids’ ears, but I’m glad something did. Here’s Bechet playing “Old Stack O’Lee Blues,” a recording from 1946.
In the more than 40 years since they released their first album, a variety of line-ups have played as The Allman Brothers Band. Playing their classic “Whipping Post” at one of their 1970 shows at the Fillmore East (before the March 1971 shows that would make up their third album, Live at the Fillmore East), the line-up featured here is the strongest of their career: Greg Allman on organ; the late-great Duane Allman on lead guitar; Dickey Betts on lead guitar; the late Berry Oakley on bass; Butch Trucks on drums; and Jaimoe on drums.
Paul McCartney (Liverpool, 1942- ) wrote “Oh Darling!” and recorded it in 1969 for what would become The Beatles last recorded studio album, Abbey Road. It’s a standard blues tune, reflective of the foundation of a lot of popular music of the 1950s and 1960s. This video features the vocals of the song with the music stripped away.
Samuel Maghett, more famously known as “Magic Sam,” was born (1937) and raised in Mississippi. He moved to Chicago at the age of 19 and, even though his career was cut short by a heart attack at age 32, he is considered one of the master’s of the Chicago blues sound.
Here’s his “I Don’t Want No Woman” from his 1967 debut album, West Side Soul.
Been busy working, but I ain’t forgot about ‘cha!
“Death Letter,” by the immortal Son House (Mississippi, 1902-1988).
Lenny Kravitz (New York & Los Angeles, 1962- ) performing “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” at the April 1994 taping of his MTV Unplugged special.
Nick Ashford and Jerry Lieber have died. Each was a musical master–one part of a songwriting duo–though neither was ever as famous as the musical giants for whom each penned classics.
Along with his wife, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford wrote and produced for Motown beginning in the 1960s. Their legendary career began when producer Harvey Fuqua gave the two a chance to write some songs for his protégé Marvin Gaye. Fuqua had decided to pair Gaye with Tammi Terrell, who had sang backup unsuccessfully for the Godfather of Soul. Ashford and Simpson (he the lyricist and she the composer) came back with “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” They followed that with a string of chart toppers for the soon-to-be legendary duo of Gaye and Terrell, hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I need to Get By.”
Ashford and Simpson would write R&B and pop hits for the next 25 years, from “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” to “I’m Every Woman” to their own “Solid as a Rock,” a chart topper for them in the 80s.
They were part of a particular moment in popular music, when the dynamics undergirding Motown’s commodification of Black musical culture was just beginning to undergo something of a change. The label, which had made a factory of success out of its deliberate strategy to make “Black music” appealing and marketable to “White America” began to shift to a more “authentic” representation of Black culture without such a concern for palatability. Ashford and Simpson didn’t lead that charge, but when Motown finally let up a bit, they were part of it.
Jerry Lieber was a Baltimore-born, LA-raised, white Jewish kid who–along with his writing partner Mike Stoller–became known in the 1950s as the writers of a cache of hits representing the birth of popular rock ‘n roll music. “Hound Dog” (first performed by Big Mama Thorton and later Elvis), kicked off their professional career, which included some of Elvis’ most enduring songs: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Loving You,” and “Treat Me Nice.”
But they didn’t stop there. Lieber and Stoller wrote hits for the Coasters like “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Yakety Yak.” They wrote for the Drifters, songs like “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me.” Jerry Lieber also wrote “Spanish Harlem” with Phil Spector, and “Youngblood” with Doc Pomus.
Here’s Leon Russell doing “Youngblood” as part of a medley he performed at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.
Lieber and Stoller took a lot of heat in later decades for being two white guys writing some of the most indelible “Black” rhythm and blues standards. As the mainstream public waned in their willingness to ignore their own unchecked white supremacy–a condition which fomented years of white musicians, writers, and producers stealing the creative work of Black artists and never paying them royalties–artists like them became associated with the unsavory past of our popular culture.
The negative attention was not deserved for these two men, however. As the most successful non-Black writers in popular blues and soul it was not surprising they had to bear that burden, as did Elvis (though he only had to suffer to a small extent in his lifetime). It was, and remains, a distraction from the real and insidious practices which robbed Black musicians and writers of what was really theirs.
Lieber and Stoller often joked how they were “honorary Black men” for their creative legacy. While the notion is certainly complicated beyond its casual use, their self-assessment (however light-hearted) reflects the sense of love which guided their combined careers–the love Black performers had for their talents, as well as the love these two white kids had for blues music.
Both Jerry Lieber and Nick Simpson were part of the birth of popular rhythm and blues music, a period in US history when non-white cultural production became so ubiquitous as to become known as just “American” culture. As they witnessed and participated in this special time in our culture’s history, they gave us some of the sounds that will forever make up the soundtrack of daily life.