Monday, February 13, 2006

Bobby Bland - I've Just Got To Forget About You (DUKE 464)

I've Just Got To Forget About You

This past January 22nd would have been Sam Cooke's 75th birthday. January 27th was Bobby Bland's 76th.

Bobby was born in the small town of Rosemark, Tennessee, where he grew up surrounded by the sounds of spiritual music as well as The Grand Ol' Opry broadcasts on WLAC. He actually picked cotton in the fields, and didn't bother going to school much.

When the family moved to Memphis in 1947, he joined a local Gospel group called The Miniatures that sang in area churches. It wasn't long, however, before the young Bland was drawn in by the whole blues scene that was happening down on Beale Street. In addition to working in a local garage, he began parking cars down behind the Palace Theatre, and soon became a regular fixture. He would compete in the amateur shows staged by Rufus Thomas most every Wednesday, and came to be known as one of the Beale Streeters, a loose collection of local guys that would include B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, and Earl Forest at one time or another.

They took work where they could get it, often performing at local brothels or upstairs at Sunbeam Mitchell's legendary Club Handy for little more than a bowl of chili. It was Mitchell that got Bobby a spot on Rufus Thomas' radio show on WDIA. This got him noticed by Sam Phillips, who had just started recording local acts at his Memphis Recording Service. He did a session on Bobby for Chess Records in 1951, and early the next year, Ike Turner produced four sides for Modern Records at the studio, none of which made much of a splash.

Later in 1952, Bobby signed with Duke Records, a new label that had been started up by WDIA DJ Dave Mattis. They would release one single, Lovin' Blues, before Bobby was drafted into the Army. The record became somewhat of a regional hit while he was away, and Duke recorded his Army Blues in 1953 while he was home on leave.

Don Robey, meanwhile, was busy building his own little empire. He had opened a club called The Bronze Peacock in Houston, Texas in 1945 that became the premier showcase for Jazz and R&B in the region. He began managing local artists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and would open a record store in 1947. It wasn't long before he realized there was real money to be made in the record business, and in 1949 he formed Peacock Records, building his own recording studio and record pressing plant adjacent to the club. He began building an impressive roster of Gospel and Blues talent, and his records became huge sellers in the Southern market. Robey had the reputation of running his business "like a plantation", often making his point with a pistol he kept strapped to his leg. In addition to recording and pressing his own records, he would pay writers a few dollars up front, then claim songwriting credit and publishing rights for himself. He also made sure his artists were represented by his own Buffalo Booking Agency, run by partner Evelyn Johnson (pictured here with Robey). He had all the angles covered. Ever on the lookout for a new source of income, Don had his eye on Memphis.

He made a deal with Dave Mattis, giving Duke a much needed infusion of cash, and by late 1953 Robey had forced him out, becoming sole proprietor of Duke-Peacock Records. When Bobby was discharged from the service in 1955, the Memphis he knew was no more. Sam Phillip's own Sun Records had found its fair haired boy, and his contract with Duke was now owned by someone he'd never met somewhere in Texas.

He and Robey actually got along well together (he often said it was better than pushing a plow...), and he rejoined old friend Junior Parker as part of a package called Blues Consolidated that Buffalo Booking had put together. Playing more than 300 gigs a year, they criss-crossed the country, just smokin' it up! Duke would record them whenever they came through Houston, and so kept a steady stream of "product" out there for sale. Most of these early sides featured the great Clarence Hollimon on guitar, but it was his old Memphis homeboy Pat Hare (who would later go on to become a member of Muddy Waters' band before being sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing his girlfriend and the cop she called on him...!) that drove his first national hit Farther Up The Road all the way to number one on the R&B charts in 1957.

The success of this record (as well as his subsequent top ten hit, Little Boy Blue) enabled Bobby to set out on his own, forming the incredible band that would stay with him for the next ten years. It would include Wayne Bennett on the guitar, Teddy Reynolds on the piano, Hamp Simmons on bass, Jabo Starks (future funky drummer for The JBs) on the drums, along with a fat horn section led by trumpeter Joe Scott. It was Scott's arrangements that brought Bobby's music to the next level, essentially creating his unique sound.

He continued to top the R&B charts, while staying out on the road 50 weeks of every year. The band was playing all the popular package shows of the day alongside people like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Bobby understood, as they did, the power of the female audience, and each night was like a contest to just "take 'em out"!

The release of the absolutely amazing Two Steps From The Blues in 1961 collected much of his work from this period into a cohesive whole that still stands as one of the greatest albums ever. Songs like I Pity The Fool and I'll Take Care Of You reveal the two sides of Bland's genius... rough and gravelly Gospel shouting (reportedly inspired by C.L. Franklin, Aretha's dad), coupled with a smooth and intimate vulnerability that just drove the ladies wild. Today's B side, a track from this album, was actually released as the flip of the Don Davis produced Keep On Loving Me (You'll See The Change) in 1970, nine years later! The mood it creates, that late night lonesome highway feeling... wow. (You might notice that one D. Malone is listed as the songwriter... a pseudonym Robey had created for himself when his scam became too obvious... )

Bobby continued to top the R&B charts with records like Turn On Your Lovelight and Yield Not To Temptation, and in 1962 would score his only top 40 pop hit (#28) with T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday Blues, powered by Wayne Bennett's phenomenal guitar work.

1964's Ain't Nothing You Can Do was an absolute monster hit that literally defined the southern "soul-blues" style of which he was the king. It is this very designation (thought up by us genre-driven white people) that, in my opinion, has tended to marginalize people like Bobby, Little Milton, and Z.Z. Hill. I mean, he's like "too soul" to be taken seriously by the blues "purists", while being often overlooked by the soul crowd as having too much "blues"... or something. Whatever. His own people know the deal. He has entered the R&B charts an incredible 63 times, placing no less than 25 records in the top ten!

By the end of the 1960s, Bobby's drinking (over two quarts a day) caught up with him, and his band split up. The loss of Joe Scott as his arranger took its toll, and his early seventies output was inconsistent. In 1973, Robey sold Duke to ABC Records, which was later taken over by MCA. He would re-unite with former Beale Streeter B.B. King for a few mid-70s outings but, for the most part, a combination of record company indifference and changing times led to some truly middle-of-the-road material.

Bobby signed with good ol' Malaco Records in 1984 and got back to his southern soul roots. The release of Members Only the following year put him right back in the R&B top 20 where he belonged. He would go on to release over 15 albums for them over the next twenty years, highlighted by great songs like Take Off Your Shoes and I Just Tripped On A Piece Of Your Broken Heart.

Throughout all of this, Bobby continued to tour constantly, playing the same "chittlin' circuit" clubs he always had. I was lucky enough to experience this first hand during Carnival in New Orleans in 1989. My brother and I, two dumb white guys festooned in Mardi-Gras beads, stumbled into the Benz Lounge on Louisiana Avenue and were just blown away! Bobby and his band (with Wayne Bennett back on the guitar), just brought the house down around us... The sheer energy of this performance, with Bobby working the crowd in a small club setting, was an experience I'll never forget...

I saw him again about two weeks ago, opening for Dr. John at a theatre in New Jersey. About half the crowd was made up of well-dressed African-Americans in their sixties and seventies... Bobby's audience that has grown old along with him. People that remember Sam Cooke... that were a part of the struggle for civil rights. A generation that is passing before our very eyes.

Bobby's amazing voice, still a powerful instrument, spoke to the soul of everyone in the room. He had us in the palm of his hand.

Talk about a living legend, man.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Billy Preston - All I Wanted Was You (MOTOWN 1470)

All I Wanted Was You

As of this writing, Billy Preston is in a Mayo Clinic facility in Arizona recovering from a "catastrophic" case of Pericarditis, an infection of the sac that encloses the heart. He is also unable to speak due to an emergency tracheotomy.


Billy's mother was the director of the 100 voice choir of The Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and he learned piano sitting on her lap surrounded by all that sound! By the age of ten, he was playing keyboards for the legendary Mahalia Jackson.

When she was asked to star in St. Louis Blues, the 1958 film version of the W.C. Handy story, she brought Billy along and he landed the role of Handy as a boy (none other than Nat King Cole would play him as an adult...). He attended John Muir Jr. High School in L.A., which was right around the corner from the home of one of his boyhood idols, Ray Charles. Billy would visit often, just soaking it all in.

He formed a Gospel group with Andrae Crouch around this time called The COGICS (or Church Of God In Christ Singers), and was soon noticed by the Reverend James Cleveland, the "Crown Prince of Gospel". He began playing the organ for him at his Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, once again with the power of the "Mass Choir" behind him.

Richard W. Penniman, meanwhile, had turned his back on rock & roll, and was devoting his life to the Lord. He asked Mahalia Jackson to come and hear him sing at the Mount Maria Baptist Church in L.A., and she was duly impressed. That's how he met Billy.

They began rehearsing for what Billy thought to be a European Gospel Tour with former Soul Stirrer Sam Cooke sharing the bill in 1962. The Gospel end of it lasted all of one performance, after which Little Richard roared back onto the Rock & Roll stage, just slaying the audience wherever they played. The 16 year old Preston was absolutely amazed... he had never played that kind of music before.

He was a fast learner.

When Sam Cooke returned to the States, the tour continued on with various opening acts, one of which was a local band called The Beatles. They worshipped Richard, and just couldn't get enough of him. Billy and their lead guitar player, George, hit it off right away, as they were usually the two youngest guys in the room.

Little Richard left Billy literally "waiting at the station" in Hamburg, Germany (there are several versions of this story...), and, a stranger in a strange land, he sought out The Beatles at the Star Club where they had a regular gig. They took him under their wing, more or less, and made sure he made it home alright.

Sam Cooke had seen what Preston could do in Europe, and signed him up as soon as he got back as an artist for J.W. Alexander's Derby subsidiary of his SAR label. He also invited him to play on his phenomenal Night Beat album, released on RCA in October of 1963. Billy's own first album, Sixteen Year Old Soul, was issued on Derby shortly thereafter, and he was on his way.

After Sam died, his record companies kind of dissolved, and Billy began doing some work with a young friend named Sylvester Stewart, then a producer and A&R man for Autumn Records in San Fransisco. He also signed with Vee-Jay around this time, resulting in the great The Most Exciting Organ Ever in 1965.

Capitol Records then bought out his contract, and released some singles produced by the likes of H.B. Barnum and David Axelrod. The Wildest Organ In Town was his first Capitol album, and featured arrangements by his newly renamed pal Sly Stone.

The 19 year old Preston soon became a regular on the so-hip TV show SHINDIG!, just shakin' it down, and was getting quite a bit of national exposure.

Ray Charles, meanwhile, spent most of 1965 in rehab, wrestling with his mighty heroin habit. When he got back on his feet, he hired Billy to play organ in his touring band. That's him kicking it up a notch on the incredible 1966 top 40 hit Let's Go Get Stoned, as well as on the rest of Ray's Crying Time LP. He would spend the next few years on the road with Brother Ray almost constantly. This was when Charles was quoted as saying; "Billy Preston is the man I would like to carry on the work I have started".

It was on one of their swings through England that Billy got a call from old friend George Harrison, asking him to stop by his new digs at Apple. The Beatles were in the midst of the miserable Get Back sessions (as later documented in the film Let It Be), and basically hated each other's guts. George had already quit the band once, and saw Billy as some kind of welcome relief. It wasn't long before they asked him to join them, resulting in some of the best music they've ever produced.

I mean, here he is sharing label credit (something nobody else had ever done...) with what was then THE most popular act in the world, on what may well be THE B side of all B sides, Don't Let Me Down... amazing! He would go on to perform with them in their fabled farewell rooftop performance, as well as being a major contributor to Abbey Road (think She's So Heavy...).

Harrison produced Billy's first album on Apple, That's The Way God Planned It in 1969, bringing in famous friends like Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Keith Richards to play on it. The Beatles (you gotta give 'em credit here) had signed the great Doris Troy to Apple as well, and she co-wrote some of the material that she sings with Billy on the record.

In 1970. Apple would release his follow-up album Encouraging Words, and Billy would become a major contributor to Harrison's amazing "I was the coolest Beatle" manifesto, All Things Must Pass, as well as Lennon's take on the whole situation, God.

In 1971, he would play the Fender Rhodes on Sly Stone's Family Affair (along with Bobby Womack on guitar), and bring his old runnin' partner back to the top of the charts. He would also steal the show at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and play organ behind Aretha Franklin on two of her most acclaimed albums, Young, Gifted, and Black and Live at the Fillmore West. Now that The Beatles were toast, Mick Jagger wasted no time in snatching him up to play organ on I Got The Blues on Sticky Fingers. Billy also signed with A&M records, who guaranteed him complete control of production, and released his first album with them, I Wrote A Simple Song.

They released the title track from the record in early 1972, and it wasn't doing much until they re-issued it with the B side, Outa Space, as the new A side. This groundbreaking popcorn funky instrumental (with Harrison on slide guitar) took off, climbing to #2 pop, and earned Preston his first Grammy. (He would actually earn his second Grammy that same year for his contributions to the Concert For Bangladesh Album...). Billy would also play both the piano and organ on Shine A Light, the best song on Exile On Main Street, and later take Jagger to check out Reverend Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir to show him how it's done. His second A&M album, Music Is My Life, was released at the end of the year.

The first single released from the record, Will It Go Round In Circles?, went straight to #1 early in 1973. His next album, Everybody Loves Some Kind Of Music, would send Space Race orbiting to the #4 position as well. Billy was on top, touring Europe with a band that included disaffected Stone Mick Taylor on guitar. He also appeared on Goat's Head Soup late in the year.

1974 saw the release of The Kids And Me, which would place Nothing From Nothing in the number one slot. He was on a roll, touring with his new band The God Squad, whose members would later go on to form both The Brothers Johnson and Rufus. He would perform on George Harrison's (shown here with a big fan) Dark Horse, as well as being all over The Stone's It's Only Rock and Roll.

In 1975, Joe Cocker took a Preston composition (the B side of Struttin'), and rode to the top of the charts with You Are So Beautiful. Billy's own album, It's My Pleasure, failed to create much of a stir, and he decided to go on tour with The Rolling Stones in both '75 and '76, playing some of his own material in the middle of their sets. By the time Black & Blue was released in April of 1976, Billy was an integral part of the band.

So here is Billy Preston, at the top of his game, basically giving up his own solo efforts to concentrate on what he considers to be his new band. On the label of the record it states, under the great Melody, "inspiration by Billy Preston"... I guess the fact that he plays both piano and organ and sings better than Jagger ever could on the track must have been what "inspired" them. When it came time to get paid, Billy learned that he was just another hired hand... there was no way they were going to let him become a Rolling Stone.

Billy moved on.

He released a few more albums on A&M before appearing as Sgt. Pepper in the film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1978. He starred alongside people like Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, performing a kick-ass version of Get Back that was released as a single. While going back to his roots and recording some Gospel material, he also began to explore his Hollywood connections, performing the soundtrack for Fast Break with Syreeta Wright, which resulted in his signing with Motown in 1979.

Today's B side (the flip of Syreeta duet "It Will Come In Time") is taken from the album Late At Night recorded later that year. Although it may start out slow, and may have a little more disco flava than we're used to over here at the B side, I just freakin' love it... I mean, if you ain't up movin' and groovin' by the end of this tune, with Billy trading licks with the great David T. Walker on guitar, and that Mass Choir sound just liftin' it on up higher and higher, well call the undertaker, honey, 'cause you dead!

Billy and Syreeta would hit #4 on the pop charts the following year with a duet on With You I'm Born Again. There would be a few more Motown releases, without much chart action, before Billy landed a gig as the musical director of the house band on David Brenner's Nightlife show in the mid 80s. He would also become a charter member of Ringo Starr's first All Starr Band in 1989.

The 90s were some tough years for Billy, with various legal problems culminating in a parole violation that landed him in jail in 1997...

In 2001 Billy was diagnosed with kidney failure, after runaway high blood pressure took its toll. He would release an incredible Gospel record, Music From My Heart, later that year. He recieved a kidney transplant early in 2002, and still managed to steal the show, once again, at The Concert For George in November.

In 2004, he toured as a member of Eric Clapton's band, and appeared on Ray Charles' last album, Genius Loves Company. The kidney he had recieved failed him, and he was in the same hospital as Brother Ray when he died in June of that year.

Now required to undergo dialysis three times a week, Billy kept right on keepin' on. Here he is with Bonnie Raitt at The Grammys last year performing a tribute to Ray. In June of 2005, he was back in the studio with producer Joe Henry working on the incredible I Believe To My Soul. In the company of fellow soul giants like Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, and Irma Thomas, it is Preston's own composition, As One, that truly stands out. If you don't own this killer album (now being sold as a Katrina benefit record), you're missin' out...

So here we are once again, attempting to pay our own tribute to a man who is at the heart of so much great music... a man who was there with Little Richard and Sam Cooke... who was actually a member of The Beatles AND The Stones, and yet is not in the stupid Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

He is so much a part of our history, man, and there he is lying in a hospital bed somewhere while that silly-ass Mick Jagger is prancing around at the Super Bowl last night making a damn fool of himself.

I thought maybe Mick would mention Billy... you know, send a little love.

I was wrong.