Monday, January 22, 2007

Herbie Mann - New Orleans (Atlantic 2621)

New Orleans

Two Cool New Yorkers with Goatees

Let's continue on with another part of the Atlantic Records story.

Tom Dowd came up on the West Side of Manhattan. A bright and inquisitive kid, his classical piano training soon gave way to tuba and then upright bass in his high school band. He graduated early, and by 16 was enrolled as a student in the Physics Department at Columbia University. Too young to be drafted, he became a member of a Government sponsored team that was developing a rudimentary understanding of particle theory. He was inducted into the Army when he turned 18, and they sent him right back to Columbia.

He didn't know it at the time, but Dowd was a part of what became known as the Manhattan Project, the effort that created the Atomic Bomb. When the war ended (due in large part to the work they had done), he was sent to the South Pacific to witness the earliest Bikini Atoll nuclear explosions. (Can you imagine?) Upon his discharge from the service, Tom learned that the education he had received at Columbia had all been 'top-secret', and he wouldn't be geting a degree unless he started from scratch. That was the end of that!

He got a summer job helping out at a recording studio in 1947, and tackled the then primitive process of sound recording as his own peronal science project. It wasn't long before he became known as a 'whiz-kid', and his services were in demand. Herb Abramson, impressed by his skills, began using him at Atlantic's sessions around town. It was Tommy Dowd that delivered the clean and punchy sound that came to be associated with the label. The trouble was that he was delivering it to their competitors as well, and it wasn't long before Herb and Ahmet Ertegun offered him an exclusive deal as the Atlantic engineer.

Tired of paying for studio time, they asked Dowd to figure out a way to record right in their office on the top floor of 234 W 56th Street. "The floor sagged and creaked," Tom remembered, "and the sloped ceiling had a skylight in the middle of it. The whole office wasn't more than nineteen feet by twenty eight. The walls were treated with plywood.... there was no studio. The office was the studio, and I had to make do." Make do he did, recording some of the hardest hitting and influential R&B records ever made... songs like Shake, Rattle and Roll, Money Honey, and Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean were cut straight to disk in that room with the desks piled up on top of each other. Limited to one live mono mix 'on the fly', Tommy Dowd made it happen... "He turned microphone placement into an art," said Jerry Wexler. Ahmet Ertegun called him "the best in the business," and he was.

Much to the trepidation of his employers, he was among the first to record using magnetic tape, eliminating the bulky acetate disk. Dowd became a master of the 'slice and dice', combining different takes of a song by actualy cutiing and splicing the tape itself. He also began experimenting with the concept of 'binaural' sound, a precursor to stereo that was played back using a separate needle for each channel. Literally on the cutting edge, Tom heard the incredible things that Les Paul was doing with the prototype Ampex 8 track recorder, and convinced Wexler and Ertegun to buy the next one they made.

When Atlantic moved around the corner to 157 W 57th, Tom was able to design their studio from the ground up, and built his own console around the 8 track machine. He was the first to incorporate 'sliders' rather than knobs into the board, and innovations like this made the company's records truly 'state of the art'. Dowd insisted on cutting each session in stereo, in addition to the mono master, even though there was no market for it at the time. When audiophiles began buying stereo LPs in the late fifties, Atlantic was ready, and was able to release much of their back catalogue in 'true stereo'.

Ahmet's older brother, Nesuhi, came aboard in 1955, and was given the task of building up the label's Jazz roster, and handling their expansion into the 12" LP format. Like his brother, Nesuhi had great taste, and those early Atlantic LPs were just dripping with 'class'. He would sign legends like Mingus and Coltrane, and was a champion of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was Nesuhi's idea to tap in to the Jazz chops of Ray Charles and pair him with MJQ vibe man Milt Jackson for great albums like Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting. Dowd recorded it all. In 1959, Ertegun signed a flute player named Herbie Mann.

Mann rose up out of Brooklyn to become one of the first to play the flute in a Jazz setting. His early fifties quartet recordings for the Bethlehem label (which had been engineered by Dowd) didn't do much, but it was his groundbreaking Verve excursions into Cuban and African rhythms that put him on the map. He continued that groove at Atlantic, recording albums with folks like Baba Olatunji, and Ray Barretto. In 1961, Tom Dowd recorded Herbie and his band live At the Village Gate, and when a single from the record, Comin' Home Baby broke into the top 30 on the pop charts, he became a household name.

In Ahmet Ertegun's words, "Although there are certain limitations to the flute, Herbie Mann is a master of the instrument. He went through many incarnations and he crossed over. He did some R&B sides, some Bossa Nova... I think we made over fifty albums with Herbie, more than with any other artist. One reason being that he kept getting different kinds of groups around him and was very clever at being able to increase the range of what he could do. He brought the music, therefore, to a wider audience without commercializing it. See, there's no such thing as popularizing Jazz, because the minute any Jazz becomes popular, all the Jazz musicians say it's not Jazz."

As Mann himself said, "I was the Kenny G of the sixties" (ouch!).

As Atlantic made their move into soul music, Tom Dowd was an integral part of the sound, upgrading the equipment at every major southern studio they worked with. He was the man that brought both Stax and Fame out of the stone age, and was the first to record in stereo at both locations. When Jerry Wexler helped set up Chips Moman at American and Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound, he sent Dowd down there to make sure it was done right. He worked closely with everyone from Otis to Aretha, and became a much loved figure in the studio. It was no accident that Dowd's recordings made you feel like you were 'in the room', and it was that transparency that helped reveal the best in each artist, without adding any of himself to the mix. On most of the records from this era, he was still only credited as 'engineer', but towards the end of the decade Wexler apparently felt guilty and began billing him as a 'co-producer'. He delivered the goods.

Mann was paying attention, and in Dowd's words, he "came busting in on me and said 'What do you think of me going down to Memphis with you and making a record?' I said, 'Okay, that's cool.' He said, 'Okay let's go.' So we went down there and cut the album Memphis Underground. When it became a big hit, Herbie said 'You know what, once every five years you and I make a record that's kind of wild!" Today's wild B side is the flip of the title track from that album, which bubbled just under the top 40 on both the R&B and the pop charts in the summer of 1969. Dowd, finally credited as the producer he was, was able to bring seasoned Jazz musicians like Roy Ayers and Larry Coryell together with Memphis mainstays like Tommy Cogbill and Reggie Young and still find the pocket. I just love the whole 'flute groove' bag here, man... tres late sixties car commercial!

Dowd made the move to Miami around this time, joining Wexler in upgrading yet another southern studio, Criteria. Known as 'Atlantic South', Tom (although now back working freelance) remained behind the board. On a trip to Macon to help out with Phil Walden's new Capricorn Studio, he heard The Allman Brothers Band, and was just knocked out. He talked Walden into sending them down to Miami, where he produced the stunning Idlewild South. Setting a new standard for live recording, he then wired the Fillmore East and captured the band at the absolute peak of their powers in 1971. It was Dowd who got 'Skydog' Allman together with Clapton in the studio and captured the magic that would become Layla and other assorted Love Songs in 1972. "When I walked out of the studio after having done that album, I said, 'That's the best album I have made since The Genius of Ray Charles'," Dowd recalls. "When it didn't sell I was talking to myself saying 'I'm wrong. There's something missing somewhere.' But Atlantic stuck to their guns and a year later the thing was the rock 'n' roll national anthem of the world." There ya go.

Once again, Herbie Mann had been watching his old friend and imported Duane Allman, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr. to Atlantic's New York studios to create another classic groove record, Push Push (produced by Dowd's cohort Arif Mardin). Released on Mann's own Embryo label, the album made it's way into the collection of many a high school kid (like yours truly) through the presence of Allman and the groovy orange velvet soft porn image on the inside cover which left no doubt as to the meaning of the title.

During this period, Dowd referred to himself as the '5 M Man' saying that you were guaranteed to find him in one of five places; Manhattan, Miami, Macon, Memphis, or Muscle Shoals. When Duane Allman died on his motorcycle during Tom's production of Eat A Peach, he was truly devastated, and has described it as a 'great loss'. Dowd soldiered on, however, producing number one hits on everyone from Rod Stewart to Lynyrd Skynyrd over the course of the next thirty years. The positively fantastic documentary Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music chronicles Dowd's unique and inspiring life, and gives a sense of how wonderful a man he was.

Tom Dowd passed on due to complications from emphysema in 2002.

Herbie Mann went on to chart a few more times during the disco era with dance records like Hijack and Superman, but would return to his pure Jazz roots with albums like Deep Pocket and Beyond Brooklyn later on. An excellent retrospective of Mann and his intrepid groove quest appeared in waxpoetics in April of last year.

Herbie Mann lost his fight with prostate cancer in 2003.

The legacy of great music these men left behind is ours forever.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Roy "C" - Open Letter To The President (Alaga 1006)

Open Letter To The President


As we join together to celebrate the life of this great American, it's good to reflect on how far we've come, but just as important to remember how far we have to go. Today's great B side was released in 1971, and its powerful message still rings true today. Recorded during the heyday of New York Soul (when Godfather still lived off 178th Street in Saint Alban's), it's the real deal.

As the proprietor of his own label, Roy C Hammond was able to speak his mind, and often did (according to Roy, his Impeach The President has been 'sampled' over 200 times).

The awesome song you're listening to now is the flip of the classic Got To Get Enough (Of Your Sweet Love Stuff) and was written and produced by Roy and his long time partner, J Hines. If you've been following case three over at soul detective, you know that Hammond and Hines had their differences over the years, but the body of work they created together withstands the test of time. Hines' guitar is just phenomenal here, as is the rest of the band (check out the cool stereo mix), but it's Roy's lyrics that reach out and grab ya:

"Listen, Mr. President, yeah, this is an open letter to you. I want to know, why don't you stop the fighting and bring all our boys home, that's right..."

It sure is.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five - Super Rappin' Theme (Enjoy 6009)

Super Rappin' Theme

When they announced the 2007 'inductees' to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame yesterday, I was amazed to hear they had chosen Grandmaster Flash alongside people like R.E.M. and Van Halen. Flash, unlike the others, was a true pioneer who changed the music forever. He came up out of The Bronx in the mid-70s as one of the first DJs spinning at the very dawn of what would become Rap Music. His techniques were legendary, applying the electronics he was learning at his vocational high school to manipulate the turntables and create something that was more than the sum of its parts. As the 'MC' became an essential part of the music, Flash hooked up with Kurtis Blow for a time before developing the concept of The Furious Five.

They soon dominated uptown, and by the fall of 1977 Flash had blown by fellow innovators Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc as the king of the Bronx and Harlem dance scene. He was also one of the first to experiment with the 'beatbox', and turned the electronic drum machine into an artform. Spoonie Gee, meanwhile, was developing his own 'love rap' style and kept begging his uncle, Bobby Robinson, to record him. Bobby basically just laughed him off until he saw the success that Sugar Hill Records was having with the music. He decided to re-activate his Enjoy label and offered a contract to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Flash's prowess on the beatbox along with the funky groove laid down by Pumpkin & Friends (Bobby's 'house band') helped make Super Rappin' a big local hit in 1979. Although it didn't get any radio play, Bobby's Happy House was selling over 2000 copies of the 12 inch single a day! Today's selection, that original backing track, was the flip of Super Rappin' #2 in 1980, and appears to have been the only 7 inch 45 released by Flash.

Flash and the Five wanted more exposure than they were getting at Enjoy, and signed with Sugar Hill themselves later that year. Tracks like Freedom and The Birthday Party began charting for the label, and the groundbreaking The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel showed off Flash's chops as a DJ, while creating the concept of 'sampling' in the process. It was 1982's The Message, however, that put them over the top, and let the world know that hip hop had arrived...

"So what are you saying here, Red... that you're finally happy with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?"

You know me better than that. The fact that they are 'inducting' Grandmaster Flash is great and everything but, aren't they putting the cart before the horse here? I mean, places like the 'all' music guide invariably say 'R&B legend Bobby Robinson', but I don't think these people have a clue what that means. Time and time again we run into him here on these pages, and I thought it was high time we took a closer look:

Originally from Union, South Carolina, Robinson settled in New York just after World War II. He opened a record store on 125th Street in Harlem, a couple of doors down from the Apollo Theatre, in 1946. Along with his brother Danny, he soon became a fixture in the neighborhood, and was on a first name basis with the performers and music industry types that hung around the Theatre. In the liner notes for the now out-of-print The Fire/Fury Records Story, Bobby goes on to say "I also got to know the fellows who had their own record labels. I remember spending a lot of time with Ahmet Ertegun and his partner, Herb Abramson, when they founded Atlantic Records. They would come up to the store and ask me for advice."

In What'd I Say, Ertegun (pictured here with Robinson and Clyde McPhatter around 1954) says that he used to give Bobby 25 free copies of their releases if he agreed to play them on his outdoor speakers. As Atlantic's records began flying out of the store, Bobby soon decided to start his own company. Ertegun told him "Listen Bobby, you are making such a mistake. You've done so well out of the record shop, you're going to sink all your money into this ridiculous idea. Please, please don't do it..."

Robinson didn't listen, of course, and started up his own Robin label in 1951. That was soon replaced by Red Robin, and a succession of others that were run by Bobby, Danny or both. Local Doo-Wop and Jazz releases on Whirlin' Disc, Holiday, Everlast, Vest and Fling would follow, and the records sold well locally. Bobby longed for national distribution, however, and made a series of bad deals that caused him to close down most of his original labels in 1957.

He would start up Fury Records (and its accompanying Fire Publishing Company) later that year, and business continued as usual. As we mentioned last month, Bobby hired a young southerner named Marshall Sehorn as his new A&R and promotion man in 1958. It was Sehorn that brought in Wilbert Harrison to record Kansas City at the Bell Sound Studios in New York in March of 1959. The record just took off, going straight to number one on both the R&B and pop charts while selling over 4 million copies (something Ahmet Ertegun had yet to do with Atlantic), and Bobby was on top.

Only it didn't last. Harrison was already under contract to Savoy Records (although he neglected to tell Robinson that) and they sued him for a million dollars. Although they eventually worked it all out, Bobby was unable to release a timely 'follow-up' record on Harrison, and he never charted again. Undaunted, Robinson took the name of his publishing company, and started up a new label at that point so he could continue to record. He would hit the #1 R&B spot again in early 1960 with Georgia transplant Buster Brown's smokin' Fannie Mae (Fire 1008).

He would go on to record classic Blues records by people like Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Sam Meyers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James (James even cracked the R&B top 20 that year), while making it to #1 once again with the amazing Bobby Marchan's There Is Something On Your Mind. The Savoy lawsuit was finally settled in 1961, and Bobby was able to fire up his Fury label once more. One of the first artists he recorded was a recent high school graduate from Georgia who, along with her brother and two of her cousins, made up Gladys Knight & the Pips.

The great Every Beat Of My Heart had been released on the small Atlanta based Huntom label first, but Bobby flew Gladys and the Pips to New York to re-record it. After the song began to hit, Vee-Jay records in Chicago leased the original master from Huntom, and with their superior distribution network, took it to #1 R&B (the Fury single stalled at #15). Bobby sued this time, and the courts forced Vee-Jay to pay him a nickel for every record they sold. Not bad (the white guy in the above photo is Marshall Sehorn, by the way).

We've already spoken about the circumstances regarding the label's next #1 R&B smash, Lee Dorsey's Ya-Ya. Sehorn and Robinson's southern connections were paying off big time as the record even broke into the pop top ten. His next big chart successes were to come from closer to home, however. Small's Paradise was a legendary Harlem nightspot located just ten blocks from his record store, and Bobby was a regular. In 1962 he made a bet with the saxaphone player in The Noble Knights that he could deliver him a hit.

He started a brand new label called Enjoy just for that purpose, and its very first release took King Curtis all the way to #1 R&B with Soul Twist. Curtis had lost the bet, and so had to sign a contract with the new label. The house band at Small's featured Don Gardner on drums and Dee-Dee Ford on keyboards. Bobby heard them singing an incredible song called I Need Your Lovin', and put it out on Fire in the summer of 1962. It coasted to #4, and the follow-up Don't You Worry broke into the top ten as well. Robinson would close out the year with Les Cooper And The Soul Rocker's #12 smash Wiggle Wobble on his Everlast imprint.

I'm not sure what happened at this point, but Bobby's chart days all but dried up. In Jeff Hannush's great I Hear You Knockin' he says that "By early 1963, Robinson's labels were in financial difficulty. One of Robinson's silent partners, Fats Lewis, pulled out of the operation just as a major deal with ABC was about to consummate."

Whatever the case may be, Robinson kept on keepin' on, continuing to make great records, some of which, in my opinion, are even better than the hits. He had developed into a great producer, and it was said that he had 'the best ear in the business'. Deep soul by the likes of Willie Hightower and Joe Haywood went nowhere, as did cool proto-funk sides by groups like The Ramrods. He remained a much respected figure in Harlem, and often held court backstage at the Apollo. As I've said before, legend has it that he pitched Warm And Tender Love to Jerry Wexler on one such occasion. As near as we can figure it over on soul detective, the last sides he recorded back then were on his new Front Page label circa 1969...

That is until he started it all back up again ten years later to record the first wave of Rap as it happened on the streets around him. This is a seminal figure, folks. This is the man that ties it all together... the missing link, if you will. He is still around, working most days at his 'Happy House', which (like we talked about a couple of weeks ago) remains an important cultural focal point in the Harlem community.

Where is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame... or the Rhythm & Blues Foundation for that matter? As the Furious Five said on the A side of today's record - "His name is not found in the Hall of Fame."

That, my friends, is just plain wrong.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

James Brown - Ain't It Funky Now (Part 2) (King 6280)

Ain't It Funky Now (Part 2)

Just One More

If you're like me, you've been listening to a lot of James Brown lately. Pulling out all of this old vinyl has been a revelation, and I've been hearing things in the music I never noticed before. I love that.

B side maven that I am, Godfather's many 'Part 2"s have always been high on my list. Today's selection is a particular favorite.

The single was released in November of 1969, and spent 3 months on the charts, peaking at #3 R&B (it even made it to #21 on the Billboard Hot 100). Recorded during James' organ period, the A side features a heavy dose of JB B3, and a horn vamp 'change' (not quite a 'bridge'). This funky B side has neither one, and is kind of a unique window into Brown's creative process. The record was inexpicably left off of the otherwise excellent Star Time box set (only included as part of a live Brother Rapp medley).

Late 1969 was a time of unrest and upheaval in 'The James Brown Band', with some members already out the door, and Maceo plotting his famous 'mutiny' for early 1970. The Star Time liner notes list the personnel for the November 20th 1969 'Funky Drummer' session as follows:

Richard "Kush" Griffith - trumpet
Joe Davis - trumpet
Fred Wesley - trombone
Maceo Parker - tenor saxophone
Eldee Williams - tenor saxophone
Jimmy Nolen - guitar
Alphonso "Country" Kellum - guitar
"Sweet" Charles Sherrell - bass
Clyde Stubblefield - drums

It's probable that it was pretty much the same for our current record, with one notable exception. After starting out calling "Hey you, come here... can you play that thing?" to Maceo, James makes it a point to introduce his new drummer, John 'Jabo' Starks (fresh from Bobby Bland's outfit), asking him "Do you like it?" several times, until he agrees that it "sure is funky now..." On The LP, the song, for whatever reason, is sped up considerably by running the master tapes at a higher RPM. King had done this with the single release of Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, and would do it again a few months later with the Get Up (I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine) single, but this is the only instance I've noticed where the album version (which still clocks in at 9:26) is faster than the single. Anyway, after the portion used for our 'Part 2', JB says "Yesterday, Clyde", an apparent reference to the recently departed (but soon to return) Stubblefield.

The thing that always got me about this tune was the guitars. I mean, check out those two simple parts, locking in to create this hypnotic groove. Years ahead of his time, Brown built his music out of this kind of repetitive figure, much like the digital 'loops' people use today. If you listen closely, you can even pick out a point where the guitarists stop for like a nanosecond, signifying the beginning of another section. The discipline required to accomplish this just boggles the mind. 'Chank' Nolen was truly a master of the rhythm guitar (and one of my major heroes), who would prove Einstein's theory that 'beyond complexity lies simplicity'.

Listening to James lead the band here is so cool. I love when he says "Take it down. Let Me Concentrate!", then decides what the song needs is some trumpet from 'Kush' Griffith... "Play Kush' part Fred, so I can let Kush solo... Kush you oughta be ashamed of yourself, leave that little horn alone!" This is Godfather at his best, creating on the fly. All of his little grunts, groans, sighs and laughs on here are just soul personified, man.

He truly was Soul Brother Number One.