Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The End

When my friend and partner Sir Lattimore Brown was killed early this year, it felt like the end of something. As I stood there in the cold Florida sun and attempted to deliver some kind of eulogy for him, my words rang hollow in my ears. The March winds rose up and blew them all away. This life, this music, this very real art that Lattimore and his generation had created was fading swiftly and inexorably into the past, and it seemed all I could do was watch as it slipped through my fingers.
That's what it felt like.
I believe we are witnessing 'the end of an era' here. In the most recent issue of In The Basement (which will cease to exist itself this Spring), John Waters wrote that "Soul is in its last death throes... the great names that made the music we love are becoming ever thinner on the ground." Indeed, as each week seems to bring some more sad news...
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It's like Hyman Roth tells Michael; "This is the business we have chosen..."  As the 'Soul Era' recedes further and further in the rear view mirror, I think we need to continue to celebrate the vibrant and living music this generation is leaving behind them, but accept the fact that it comes from a time and place that we will never see again.

The Robins - Smokey Joe's Cafe (Atco 6059)

Smokey Joe's Cafe

Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had made a name for themselves out on the West Coast, writing songs for folks like Charles Brown, Ray Charles and Little Esther, but it was the number they composed for Big Mama Thornton that put them on the map. After Don Robey refused to pay up when Hound Dog took the country by storm, they decided to start their own label, Spark. Although they cut some great records, it was the last one they released on the label that made all the difference, and it's hard to imagine a more significant recording than this one. As Lieber said in Hound Dog - The Lieber & Stoller Autobiography: "The Robins got it... Carl Gardner sang a perfect lead."

When friend and fellow Central Avenue Jazzbo Nesuhi Ertegun heard it, he proclaimed it "nothing short of sensational," and sealed the deal with his brother Ahmet back in New York that brought Lieber & Stoller to Atlantic. Re-issued on Atco in October of 1955, Smokey Joe's Cafe would cruise into the R&B top ten and change the face of American popular music forever. Carl Gardner made the trip back East with Jerry and Mike, and would form the foundation of The Coasters for the next fifty years, singing lead on all of their big hits. He passed away on June 12th, Jerry Lieber died on August 22nd.

Howard Tate - You Don't Know Nothing About Love (Atlantic 2860)

You Don't Know Nothing About Love

Another of the great New York based songwriters and producers left us on July 13th, Jerry Ragovoy, who was the force behind some of the greatest records ever made. He wrote Time Is On My Side (along with Jimmy Norman who also died this year), for instance, and Piece Of My Heart and Cry Baby (with Bert Berns). He was a genius in the studio as well, building his own trademark sound to crescendos that few have ever equalled. The records he cut with Lorraine Ellison in the late sixties have remained underground favorites for years, but it is his work with Howard Tate that captures one's imagination. Get It While You Can is, as Larry Grogan says,"an example of all that was great about 60's Soul... alongside great soul ballad tours de force like Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness and James Carr’s Dark End of the Street"
I couldn't agree more, and it is Tate's Verve material that deservedly gets the most attention. This great B Side we have here however, cut for Atlantic in 1972 after Jerry Wexler picked up Howard's contract, is right up there in the same league, in my opinion. It's kind of been 'under the radar', as it didn't sell much at the time, and comes from the period when Atlantic's promotional singles were double A sided affairs, with the 'plug' (in this case,  She's A Burglar, which sank like a stone) in stereo and mono. Both sides were taken from the excellent LP Howard Tate, which would soon be deleted as well, as Atlantic's focus had pretty much shifted away from its Soul artists by then.
In any event, this great Ragovoy written and produced number would surface years later as the cornerstone of Irma Thomas' excellent Rounder LP The Way I Feel. The reunion of Howard and Jerry for the  2003 album, Rediscovered, is one of the great stories to come out of this whole Soul revival thing, and I'm thankful to the folks at the Ponderosa Stomp for making it possible for me to have seen him perform live. He was awesome. Howard Tate passed away on December 2nd.

Howlin' Wolf - Three Hundred Pounds of Joy (Chess 1870)

Three Hundred Pounds of Joy

What Can I Say? The Wolf's high voltage delivery of some of Willie Dixon's greatest lyrics ever make this one of my favorite records of all time (there are those who would tell you it's actually my 'theme song'). Be that as it may, it is Hubert Sumlin's stinging, incisive guitar work that keeps it from ever leaving the ol' jukebox. Released in 1963, it is Hubert's clean tone that launched the British invasion, and is (as he would gladly tell you himself) the place where Eric Clapton got it from. After Wolf died in 1976, Hubert went on to get some of the recognition he deserved, and was a fixture on the 'Blues Circuit', where I caught him every chance I got. The last time I saw him was at the Crawfish Fest out in New Jersey a few years ago, where I took my kids by the hand and planted them in front of the stage. "Remember this moment," I told them, "this man is living history." Hubert Sumlin left us on December 4th.

Please join me in saying goodbye to those who have gone on to glory before us here in 2011:

May They Rest In Peace.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jimmy Donley - Santa! Don't Pass Me By (Tear Drop 3007)

Santa! Don't Pass Me By

If you know anything about me, you know that I don't believe in coincidences. Every once in a while something happens that kind of spooks me, because it just feels like it was meant to be... I was flipping through some 45s this afternoon, trying to put something together for my annual year end post, where I try to honor some of the folks who have gone on before us.

One of those people was my friend Huey P. Meaux who passed away on April 23rd. No matter what you may have thought of him, he was truly an American original, and an indomitable force in the music industry for many years. Many of the records he cut along the way will live on forever. He cared deeply about that legacy, I think, as witnessed by the fact that he had his own headstone engraved and installed years before he was called upon to lie beneath it. "Producer Extrordinaire," it reads, "Did it My Way! No Regrets! Love Ya - Bye Now!" On the back, he lists the names of the people who stood by him and remained in his corner while he was in prison, among them the two men he considered his brothers, Jerry Wexler and Shelby S. Singleton.

I was introduced to the Crazy Cajun by another record man, Chuck Chellman. We'd spend hours on the phone sometimes, while Huey told me his stories. Some of the most amazing ones had to do with Jimmy Donley. Meaux had signed Jimmy to his fledgling Tear Drop label after Decca let him go in 1962. Donley was a violent, wife-beating drunk who also happened to be a genius, writing some of Fats Domino's best records in the 1950s. He was a household name in those days on the Gulf Coast, and songs like his own Born To Be A Loser spoke the lovesick language of the Cajun Prairie. By the time Huey signed him, Donley was spinning out of control, and was basically homeless. After his mother died in early 1963, Huey found him seriously drunk, hysterical and playing guitar at her graveside. He cleaned him up and got him a hotel room, telling him to get some sleep, and that he'd see him in the morning. Only by the time the morning rolled around, Donley had hooked up a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and killed himself. "I cried like a baby," Huey told me, "the more talent they have, it seems like they have a little tornado running inside their head..."

Now, as some of you know, my kids and I put together a Christmas CD that we send out to family and friends every year. In 2006, before I met Huey Meaux, or had any clue who Jimmy Donley was, we included this incredible song you're listening to now on the CD. It has grown to be one of our all-time favorites and gets played to death around here every December. I'll be honest with you though, I still never put two and two together until I looked up the Sunny and the Sunliners 45 I was going to use next week in the Tear Drop discography I found on Wikipedia, and saw this record on there. It stopped me in my tracks, man, and I knew I had to post just one more Christmas song. Huey would have wanted me to...

One of the conditions of his parole was that, in addition to being required to wear an ankle monitor, Huey was not allowed to have a computer. He was, however, heavily into his Fax Machine, and I miss the cryptic typewritten notes that would show up unannounced at all hours of the day and night. The last one I received from him was on New Year's Day:

March 4th was the date that his parole was due to expire, and the ankle monitor was to be removed. The last time I spoke with him was on his 82nd birthday, March 10th. He sounded weak, and had been confined to a sick bed when they came to take the monitor off the week before. He never got up again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ramsey Lewis Trio - Mary's Boy Child (Cadet 5662)

Mary's Boy Child

The Ramsey Lewis Trio came roaring up out of Chicago in the early sixties and brought their unique style of cool Jazz into the mainstream of popular culture. They busted things wide open when their swingin' cover of (the recently deceased) Dobie Gray's The "In" Crowd climbed higher on the charts than the original ever did, parking itself at #2 R&B for three weeks in the Summer of 1965 (only kept from the top slot by the Godfather's monster, Papa's Got A Brand New Bag).

The Trio would continue to chart for the rest of the decade with their hip renditions of current hits. This movin' and groovin' take on a traditional Christmas song we have here was released as the flip of My Cherie Amour in 1970 (go figure). It's hard to say enough about the importance of a group that has given us both Young-Holt Unlimited and Earth, Wind & Fire, and has remained current right into the present day. The Great Performer marches on!

...and now, as the usual insanity around here is about to be taken to the next level, please allow me to extend my wishes to you and your family for a happy and a healthy Holiday Season. I hope Santa treats you good!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

J. Blackfoot - Hiding Place (Sound Town 15)

Hiding Place

I first met 'Foot' in 2007, when he stopped in at the studio to see Willie Mitchell the day before the Soul Children reunion at the 50 Years of Stax concert in Memphis. With his ebullient personality and infectious smile, he soon had all of us in stitches as he poked fun at Pop and just about everyone else he could think of. He was just kind of larger than life, if you know what I mean, and it was a moment I will never forget. That 'Star Quality' shone through his set with the Soul Children the next day, but I don't think I fully appreciated what an incredible singer he was until he positively channeled O.V. Wright at Willie's Memorial Celebration a few years later...

I know I included most of this in the video I put up back then, but it was honestly one of the greatest 'Deep Soul' performances I have ever witnessed. When Percy Wiggins told me in October that 'Foot was suffering with cancer, it just kind of knocked me down. He was so full of life.

Rest In Peace, Soul Man.