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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Friday Five: 1973

I turned 1 in 1973. So, much like the music in last week’s post, my memories of these songs date from much later than the year in which they were released. And, like for most of the 70s, its hard for me to narrow down a year to only five songs. The early decade, in particular, seems to be the source of a lot of the music I continue to obsess over in my present.

So with the below list my goal is to offer an eclectic sample of five tunes that were first released in 1973.

5. “The Joker” (Steve Miller Band)
I’m not afraid to admit that if you had asked the 19-year-old me what my favorite song was I just might have said “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. My connection to his music was painfully limited for most of my young life. I knew (and loved) his 1982 hit “Abracadabra” because of my age and young tolerance for mediocre pop. I also had a hand-me-down t-shirt of his rainbow pegasus emblem, a piece of clothing that made me pretend like he was one of my favorites even though the only other song I knew from him was his late-70s hit “Fly Like An Eagle.” Reflective of the cultural specificity of an LA-area, Chicano upbringing, I don’t recall hearing the bulk of his 70s hits until high school, when I started listening to KLOS radio. In the first week of attending a largely-white and affluent college, I quickly observed that he would become part of the soundtrack of the next four years of my life. I bought his ubiquitous “Greatest Hits, 1974-78” album, saw him three times in concert, and relished his minor comeback in the early 90s. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had started to listen to his earlier (and much more amazing) work. Regardless, this song will always be near and dear to my heart.

4. “Show and Tell” (Al Wilson)
When I think of the 1970s and the music that means a lot to me, I think of a lot of music that played on the radio as I played with my cousins (and my folks and the other adults drank, danced, or just hung out). Maybe one way to think about these songs is as R&B tunes that had purchase over that African American cultural space shared by Chicanos, where groups like Bloodstone or Heatwave made newer contributions to 50s doo-wop and 60s soul. Al Wilson was part of that, at least for me. This song was his biggest hit, and an enduring part of my own musical soundtrack.

3. “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips)
Already well-known and successful in the world of R&B, Gladys Knight and crew left Motown Records in the early 1970s. They started recording for Buddah Records, even though Motown still had music of their’s left to release. In 1973, two of their albums hit the charts, one from each label. This song–the opening track from the album Imagination (Buddah)–was released as a single a few months before the album dropped. It’s one of the group’s signature hits, and for all the right reasons. This has got just about every good thing in the world happening in it, from the horns, to the voices, to the lyrics. I even remember watching the choreographed dance routines that accompanied TV performances of it. I would easily count this in my top-50 songs I never get tired of listening to…

2. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder)
This song was released as a single in 1973, even though it was part of Stevie’s 1972 album Talking Book. It’s not my favorite song by him–and I have a handful that tie as favorites–but it’s a song I like very, very much and, more importantly, one I know very well. It’s one of those songs I feel like I know as long as I’ve known any song. It’s never not been a part of the soundtrack of my life, whether on LA radio, family get togethers, or my own CD collection. It comes from Stevie’s “golden period,” a span of about a decade where he’s putting out almost an album every year. He plays multiple instruments on most of those songs, and takes great care with lyrics as well as composition and production. This one is a lot lighter (for lack of a better word) than the rest, and maybe sticks out for that reason.

1. “Let’s Get It On” (Marvin Gaye)
I’m not surprised that Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit has become part of mainstream pop culture. For those that didn’t live through the period of its initial success, I think it’s important to understand how his was not a predestined thing. Growing up, I don’t remember the song getting a lot mainstream circulation, even on LA oldies radio. I heard it on some stations late at night, and I knew it from family parties and that sort of thing, but it was always more of a well-known secret.  When I rediscovered the song in my late teens, I feel like that was in a period where other gen x’ers were doing the same. By the mis-1990s, the song reached the iconic status it holds today in part, I think, on that resurgence.  Today it’s status is not just a sultry R&B song that pushed the boundaries of sexually-expressive music, but its even a frequent feature in movies, TV shows, and commercials. His “too-dirty-for-the-mainstream” song has become, in fact, mainstream. However it happened, it’s a deserved status for one of our most underrated musical powerhouses. As with most of his best work from the 70s, time has not tempered its power.

Monday Blues (01.17.11)

Happy birthday Dr. King.

Bill Withers speaks out

Jesse Thorn of The Sound of Young America features an interview with legendary performer Bill Withers on his most recent podcast.  It is an informative discussion, shedding particular light on Withers’ decision to leave the limelight more than 20 years ago.  While most have called it a “retirement,” in his eyes, it is anything but.

Withers is featured in the film “Soul Power,” a documentary about the 1974 music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire which featured James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Withers, and an assortment of R&B legends sharing the stage with performers from the southern part of the continent.  The three-day concert was designed to accompany the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman title bout known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”  Along with 1971’s “Soul to Soul” concert in Ghana, the performances stand as historic instances of “American” music returning home to its roots, as its most spectacular ambassadors did the same.  “Soul Power” open this week in NY and LA.

Here is Withers performing the song “Hope She’ll Be Happier” from the documentary.

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Bill Withers on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod.

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