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.

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The King is Dead; Long Live the King!

Thirty-eight years ago today, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died.

The more time that passes, I think the less people remember what an amazingly talented performer he was. But strip away the commercial superficialities, and all of the tragedy of drugs and excess, and you do have an amazing voice. Just amazing.

The “Mark in the Morning” radio show, here in L.A., offered a nice reminder of that talent this past Friday (it should be in the “Audio Clips” feature here). They played audio from Elvis’ recording session at American Sound Studio, in Memphis, likely on January 23, 1969. On that day he was about a week into recording the album that would become From Elvis in Memphis, his post-“’68 Comeback Special” release, that stands as his best studio album (although Elvis is not really known for his albums as much as his singles).

Below is the King’s sixth take of the song “Suspicious Minds,” the take that became the single released later that fall. This “raw” track is awfully complete compared to how hit singles are made today.  It lacks the full instrumentation and background vocals that are part of the final release but it is one complete take of a song, the singer and the band playing together, with the singer’s amazing (non-computer-enhanced) voice on display.

“Suspicious Minds” would be Elvis’ last #1 single before his death.

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Friday Five: 1977

This is the year.

The movie Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. I don’t remember that day or much of anything related to the event of the release. Since I was 5, that’s not surprising. I don’t even remember watching the movie for the first time. But I do remember that my entire cultural life afterwards was related to the Star Wars universe in some way, shape, or form. It was what I played. It was the toys I bought, the drawings I made, the imagination I indulged in. Star Wars was everything.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. I do remember that day. It rained in southern California. I remember being with my mom in the parking lot of Zody’s when we heard the news on the radio. Elvis has always been another little obsession of mine. The music, the movies, the entire popular culture that grew around him in life and continued to thrive in his death, it all was a measurable part of the things I love.

Let’s take a lot at 1977 musically. These are 5 songs from that year that meant something to me in the years after.

5. “Nickel and Dime” (Journey)
Journey will always be a band best known for the music they released beginning in 1978, when lead singer Steve Perry came aboard. I certainly never heard of them until 1981, when the Perry-fronted band released Escape. (More on that album in a month.) But Journey is really the band of guitarist Neal Schon, who played with Santana before leaving to form his own band. They released three albums before Perry, each reflective of their “prog rock” origins that owe much to Schon’s guitar and Bay Area rock culture. This is one of my favorites from their 1977 album Next, a song I obsessed over in the late 1990s.

4. “Celebrate Me Home”(Kenny Loggins)
I can’t explain why I seem to know Kenny Loggins so well. He’s just one of those musical acts who was well-placed in the media during my upbringing. He was a fixture on the radio stations we listened to in the car, too. This track from his 1977 debut solo album (he had already been a part of the successful duo “Loggins and Messina”) is one of those lingering songs for me. I also remember him singing this on TV, probably during the holiday seasons. It’s a good song, one that spotlights his talents well. There’s also a little bit of the sound that would dominate 80s pop emerging in the track, a credit to his influence.

3. “Three Little Birds” (Bob Marley)
I don’t remember knowing of the existence of Bob Marley before his untimely death in 1981. I do remember hearing his music in high school, and becoming somewhat obsessed with his music and life in the early 90s while in college. College has turned Marley into music for drinking or getting high, but he is so much better than the individual tracks that make up the typical playlist. In the 90s, I started to listen to Bob Marley an album at a time, from the beginning forward. I grew in my appreciation for his talent and also for his visionary message. This song, from his 1977 album Exodus, is a deceptively simple song. In context, you get a sense of how much it thrives on the amazing talents of everyone involved with what is arguably his best studio album.

2. “Come Sail Away” (Styx)
Styx is one of those things that I sometimes feel like I have to defend. In my older age, I’ve stopped feeling that as much. Groups like them or like Foreigner were really good at what they did. Maybe it wasn’t the most important music ever made, but it was good. It fulfilled the expectations of the pop rock genre and did it in big, bold, funny, and sometimes (often) melodramatic ways. What works is that they take themselves seriously, as well they should. That genuine caring for their sound and their fans translated onto vinyl. This song is one of their biggest hits from one of their biggest albums. It is a great example of all they did well, and all they did to excess. It is 70s mightiness!

1. “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac)
I really love Fleetwood Mac. Even though I wasn’t old enough to be a part of their meteoric rise in the 70s, their music still has a very close relationship to me and my musical identity. But it’s a very “academic” kind of thing, too. They’re not a personal thing for me in the same way the are/were for those who loved them and lived through those times. I understand what they meant, and as I got into their music it started to become a very personal thing for me as a fan, maybe even as a historian.

All this is related to why I picked this song. For me, this is not their best song. It’s not even my favorite song. I do love it. But, more importantly, it is a musical sound that transports me back to the feeling of those times more than any other. That’s saying something, because there hasn’t been a time that this song hasn’t been a fixture of FM radio since its release. That my feeling of it is “70s” and not “80s” must mean something.

“Dreams” is the only song from Fleetwood Mac to make it to #1 on the pop charts. It’s from the album Rumors, which was not only their biggest album but also one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. The really rich recording warmth of a vinyl sound, the drums, and Stevie Nicks voice make it all happen.

Friday Five: 1972

This is the end of the first week of the spring semester at the Claremont Colleges. And each spring I get to teach my class on comparative race movements of the post-WWII era, “All Power to the People!” One of my favorite things about the class is the music. We start each class with a song, something that usually aligns with the topic or theme of that day’s class.

Even though I’m the teacher, it’s a great learning experience for me. The goal of finding music that’s appropriate for the class fuels a lot of my listening habits on a weekly basis. As a result, I continue to discover songs from the past that I’ve never heard before, songs that are great and that fit perfectly into the class. I also get to play songs I know intimately and love passionately with a group of young people who, often, have never heard them before.

That’s always been the point behind this “Friday Five” thing, too. So, I started thinking it might be fun to cover the span of my life through these weekly posts. I can still share music, but by covering one year each week I get a more organized way of writing about the music I love and remember, as well as discover stuff I missed along the way or rediscover the stuff I forgot about.

So, here we go! I was born in 1972, and so the music I love from that year is a mix of songs I remember hearing a lot as a small child as well as songs I’ve come to love in my teen and adult years. These five are a mix of both, all worth a listen.

5. “Garden Party” (Rick Nelson)
At some point in the 1980s, one of the “basic cable” stations started playing repeats of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” I knew about Ricky Nelson and his family before that, mostly through pop cultural references and appearances on talk shows. While his teen hits were in regular radio play in my youth, this is the song I most associate with the times. It’s a mix of country and rock, something that somehow sounds so 70s and, yet, kind of reminiscent of earlier sounds.

4. “A Horse With No Name” (America)
At some point in the 1980s, I started to understand the negative reaction to 70s pop that was widespread within segments of the hardcore rock ‘n roll purists. I suspect folks like that hated the band America. The lead singer sounded like Steven Stills, and their music sounded like the kind of “AM Gold” that dominated the airwaves in the 70s. But I can’t deny this song its rightful place in my youthful memories. I can remember hearing it as a small kid, riding in our Ford Pinto, holding on to my doll of The Six Million Dollar Man. Even now, the sound of it is both comforting and kind of haunting.

3. “Burning Love” (Elvis)
It’s the King’s last song to enter the Top Ten, and his last #1 single. And it’s so gorgeously white-leather-jump-suit-in-Vegas that I can’t help myself!

2. “Use Me” (Bill Withers)
I just couldn’t be happier that Bill Withers is getting inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame this spring. The man was viciously good, as a song writer and performer. This is, hands down, my favorite song of his. I can still remember the first time I ever really listened to the lyrics. I was a teenager and even though I had known the song for my entire life, I had never really thought about what it was about. It’s a hefty piece of music, sexy, soulful, and funny. (The single version, below, is tight. But I’ve long had a soft spot for this acoustic version, too.)

1. “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green)
It might be cheating to add Al Green’s most famous hit to a list of 1972 songs since it was first released as a single the year before. But the song was the highlight of his album of the same name, released in 1972. The song reached #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in that year, coming in at #11 for the year overall. Al Green is in my “holy trinity” of musical performers, along with Elvis and Tom Waits. Few people can turn it on like he could. Willie Mitchell, his producer, deserves a lot of the credit. But that voice!

Friday Five: Elvis ’72

This weekend marks the 37th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

Elvis was 37 years old in 1972, a year that falls within my favorite Elvis period (1968-72). His live shows in that period were as good as it gets for the King. While you can see hints of his tendency to impersonation himself–something that would become the norm as he went into serious physical decline–you also get some real hints of the greatness that was Elvis.

Here are five live performances from 1972.

5. “Proud Mary” @ Madison Square Garden
My favorite live Elvis album is of his legendary Madison Square Garden shows from 1972. He played two shows on the day of recording, an afternoon and an evening one, with the evening one supplying almost all of the tracks for the album.

4. “Polk Salad Annie”
This is a video from the 1972 documentary Elvis on Tour, a collection of his performances from this period.

3. “Burning Love” @ Greensboro Coliseum
This is from his Greensboro show (April 14, 1972) where he premiered “Burning Love” to a live audience.

2. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”
Another from Elvis on Tour.

1. “Suspicious Minds” @ Madison Square Garden
This is a low-quality video from the afternoon show. One of my favorite Elvis songs, and his last to top the Billboard charts.

 

George Harrison meets Elvis

I love Elvis. I love the Beatles. Of course, I must love the Beatles talking about Elvis.

In this video, George Harrison recalls his second and final meeting with the King.

Two Popular Musical Masters Pass Away

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.