Aretha

Word is that Aretha Franklin is “gravely ill.” I’m saddened to hear the news.  There’s no disputing the argument that she is the greatest female singer of the 20th century.  Perhaps aside from Ella Fitzgerald, there is none more significant.

I’m sure an avalanche of thoughtful and loving pieces commemorating her life and legacy are on their way. I’m spending my work day with her music. If you’re in a listening mood, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)–her first with Atlantic records–is one of the best albums ever. Here are my other favorites of her albums and collections:

Lady Soul (1968)
Aretha Now (1968)
Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
Soul ’69 (1969)
The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962)

Aretha is a much more powerful single track artist than an album one, so compilations of her work are often the surest way to go. Here are my favorites:

The Very Best of Aretha, Vol. 1: the 60s (1994)
Aretha Sings the Blues (1985)
Queen of Sou: The Atlantic Recordings (1994)

And here’s a killer live performance that always stands out in my memory:

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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!

Monday Blues (10.06.14)

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’.

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

Marvin Gaye is Still Dead

But, oh, how I wish he weren’t.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest talents in all of rhythm & blues and soul.  Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, shot dead by his father.  He was one day shy of his 45th birthday.  Had he lived, then, April 2 would have been Marvin’s 70th birthday.

I don’t have much to say about the spectacular life he lived–the radically conservative church of his youth; the music (ah! the music!); the cross-dressing (oh, yes!); and all the rest.  I hope today we will all be inundated with thoughtful and diverse recollections about the man in both the mainstream and alternative presses.  Motown–the recording studio he helped make famous–is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and even they have something special planned to mark what would have been his birthday.  I encourage you to learn more about the man if you are so inclined.

I do remember the day he died.  I don’t remember where we were that day, but it was somewhere in L.A. or in East L.A.  We had just gotten home to La Puente (about 12 miles east of E.L.A.) and turned on the late afternoon news.  I was shocked.  I was early into my musical maturing process, only 12 years old at the time, and I was shocked.  Marvin had already become one of my favorites.  Wasn’t he one of everybody’s?

I want to say two things about the man and his music, one from the perspective of a huge fan and the other from that of a young person of color growing up in Chicano southern California.

He was about as good as you get, and you could feel it.  Smokey Robinson said it well when he suggested “the driving force behind Marvin Gaye’s immense talent was his pain.”  Marvin felt it all, and he made you feel it to.  From the pop-based, post-doo-wop stuff of his early career; to the stellar duets and soul inspired solos in the mid and late sixties; to his socially-conscious turn in the late sixties and seventies; and to his dirty, make you feel all kinds of hot in his later years, Marvin had the gift that is the heart of soul music.  It was pain.  It was joy.  It was relief.  It was hope.  And it was always moving.  He even made the national anthem sexy!

Finally, he was always the “real deal.”  In the places I knew as a kid, and in the places I grew to know as an adult, Marvin Gaye was loved and respected.  Black folk, and even Mexican Americans, felt his authenticity.  I heard his oldies, but also those songs you don’t hear to much on the radio, always in groups where people visibly felt the thing it was he wanted us to feel.  I remember being in an Oakland bar once, around 1997, when a live version of one of his albums started playing during the intermission of a jumping band.  The vibe went from the dance hall to the bedroom in about 10 seconds flat.  That’s what Marvin could do.

Here are some of my favorite performances of him online.  (If you are ever looking for the definitive collection of his recorded materials, I would recommend Marvin Gaye’s The Master 1961-1984, a collection which brings together the songs you know and the songs you should.)

[NOTE: Marvin’s only Grammy Award was for this song, awarded to him at this ceremony.  He was dead one year later.]