Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Roberta Flack - Go Up Moses (Atlantic 2851)

Go Up Moses

Today's B side is one of my favorites... it's just such a cool record on so many levels.

Joel Dorn was a disk jockey on Philadelphia's legendary jazz station, WHAT FM. Atlantic Records honcho Nesuhi Ertegun, a big "jazz man", heard him and offered him a chance to produce an album for the company. When The Laws Of Jazz, the first record to feature Hubert Laws as band leader, became a breakthrough success in 1964, Ertegun hired Dorn full-time. He went on to essentially head the jazz division of the label, and soon became a vice-president.

One of his favorite artists at Atlantic was Les McCann, a great piano player and vocalist whose ground-breaking work with his trio came to be known as "soul-jazz". It was Dorn and Ertegun who paired them with sax giant Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival and recorded the hip classic Swiss Movement in 1969. When they released Compared To What, the incredible tell-it-like-it-is proto-rap message song that still rings true today ("...have one doubt, they call it treason!") as a single from the record in early 1970, it broke the R&B top 40 and became somewhat of a cult classic. The tune was written by Gene McDaniels, who would go on to create hip-hop underground favorite, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse, the following year...

What many people don't realize is that the song was first committed to vinyl by Roberta Flack. When Les McCann heard her singing at The Bohemian Caverns in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1968, he flipped. "Her voice touched, tapped, trapped and kicked over every emotion I've ever known", he said, and brought her down to Joel Dorn at Atlantic. He agreed, and the album they recorded in early 1969, First Take, is simply amazing. Produced by Dorn, it blurs the lines between jazz, soul, and folk (yup!) and comes up with some truly powerful stuff. An all-star jazz line-up featuring John Pizzarelli on guitar and Ron Carter on bass complemented Flack and her piano. In addition to Compared To What, it features two songs written by a friend from her days at Howard University, one Donny Hathaway. It also includes a little something called The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face... more on that later on.

Her next album, Chapter Two, continued in the same vein, with Dorn using his jazz chops to bring in folks like Hubert Laws and Chuck Rainey. Donny Hathaway contributes another song, and actually plays keyboards on a few tracks. Although the album lists King Curtis as co-producer, he doesn't seem to be playing on it (kind of like with The Rinkydinks, right detectives?).

Meanwhile, Atlantic had, of course, become a giant of a label. If nothing else, Ertegun knew talent when he saw it, and in 1963 offered fellow Turk and jazz lover Arif Mardin a job at the company. He started out as an assistant to fabled engineer Tom Dowd, and went on to become an arranger and, eventually, a producer for the label. He was the real deal.

His breakthrough record was Groovin' by The Young Rascals, an album that's still one of my all time favorites. Later that year (1967), he collaborated with Dowd and Jerry Wexler to create what can only be described as a soul masterpiece, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. When her cover of Otis Redding's Respect was released as a single from the album, it changed everything, soaring to number one on both the R&B and Pop charts, and putting Atlantic squarely on top of the heap. Mardin joined Dorn as a vice-president of the company, and went on working with Aretha, producing unreal albums like Spirit In The Dark and Young, Gifted, And Black, not to mention her string of #1 hits. His influence on soul music cannot be overstated. He had an unerring sense for what worked and what didn't for each artist he produced.

You find his name on great records that you never realized he had a hand in (like Meet Me In Church!) all the time. In 1969 he worked with Wexler and Dowd on another of my 'desert-island discs', Dusty In Memphis. How cool was this guy?

When Joel Dorn began production on Roberta Flack's third album, Quiet Fire, in 1971, he brought in Mardin as an arranger. The album features more jazz session heavyweights like Hugh McCracken, Bernard Purdie and Grady Tate. Today's B side (the flip of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow) was co-written by Flack, Dorn and Jesse Jackson(!), and is an answer to the traditional spiritual Go Down Moses. It exhorts Black America to quit begging off Pharoah and just let HIM go. Powerful stuff, delivered in this kind of spooky 'night-tripper' groove that just keeps building... I love it! In one of those little known places that Arif Mardin turns up in, that's him and Dorn joining in the background vocals on here. WAY cool, man.

Mardin started working with Roberta's pal Donny Hathaway that same year, producing his self-titled second album for Atlantic. It seemed only natural then that Flack and Hathaway record together as a duet, with Arif producing. Two singles released in the latter half of 1971, You've Got A Friend and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', would crack the R&B top 40. Atlantic followed them with today's single (which they of course already had in the can), and that made the top 40 as well.

In a bizarre Hollywood twist, Clint Eastwood used Roberta's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face from First Take in the soundtrack for his smash directorial debut Play Misty For Me. Atlantic promptly released it as a single, and it spent eight weeks at number one on the pop charts in early 1972. Not bad for a three year old album cut!

When Where Is The Love, the next installment of the Flack/Hathaway/Mardin collaboration was released, it ate up the charts as well, becoming the monster hit it remains to this day... the rest of that story is, as they say, history.

Arif Mardin continued on to even greater heights as Atlantic's 'hitmaker', and was the quiet genius behind great records by Hall & Oates, Laura Nyro, The Average White Band, The Bee Gees, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and Willie Nelson to name but a few. After he "retired" from Warner Brothers/Atlantic in 2001, he became a vice-president at EMI's Manhattan/Blue Note label and produced a little album called Come Away With Me for Norah Jones, earning him four more Grammy awards to add to his collection. He would pick up another one the following year for his work with jazz singer Dianne Reeves, bringing his total to twelve...

When he died last week at age 74, we lost another of the great unsung heroes of American popular music. He was truly a remarkable man.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Roberta Flack, check out She's selling the piano that she recorded her first album with! How awesome would it be to have that!

11:47 AM  

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