Monday, December 31, 2012

Gone On

Fontella Bass & Bobby McClure - You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone)(Checker 1111)

You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone)

The daughter of Gospel great Martha Bass (a member of the fabled Clara Ward Singers), Fontella Bass came up singing and playing piano in various St. Louis Churches. By the time she turned twenty, she had 'crossed-over', and was working the keyboards for local Blues icon Little Milton Campbell, in a band headed by saxophonist and arranger Oliver Sain. In late 1961, Leonard Chess picked up the master of a single by that band from Campbell's Bobbin label, and So Mean To Me would become Milton's breakthrough hit, climbing to #14 R&B in early 1962.

Sain would leave to form his own 'orchestra' shortly after that, taking Fontella and vocalist Bobby McCLure with him. The band would continue to record for Bobbin, and release two singles under Fontella's name. The first of these, the great Brand New Love, shows her fully formed, both as a singer and pianist, and already a force to be reckoned with. She would go on to cut two more singles (with Tina & The Ikettes) for Ike Turner's local imprints in 1963.

None of this was lost on Leonard Chess, who brought the whole shooting match to Chicago and cut the timeless Sain composition, Don't Mess Up A Good Thing , in February of 1965. After Chess' A&R man Roquel 'Billy' Davis suggested that Sain put in some Uncle Willie, it just ate up the charts, going all the way to #5 R&B, then breaking into the Pop Top 40. This was the record that set the stage for what was to follow, with the label's St. Louis connection about to come full circle.

Phil Chess had hired sax man Gene Barge as his musical director in 1964, and he set about putting together a rhythm section to rival any in the industry, one that featured Sonny Thompson, Louis Satterfield and Maurice White. Billy Davis, meanwhile, knew a thing or two about songwriting, and worked closely with Chess staff writers Carl Smith and Raynard Miner (along with staff arranger and copyist Phil Wright) to develop the 'hook' that would send Little Milton straight to the top of the R&B charts for three weeks in the Spring of 1965 with We're Gonna Make It. Crossing over once again into the Pop Top 40, I'm sure Leonard Chess felt that his faith in Davis had paid off, and he now had an R&B division that could compete with the records Billy's former partner Berry Gordy was making in Detroit.

Davis next turned his attention to Fontella and Bobby, and decided to cut their follow-up single with the Chess house band, rather than with Oliver Sain, resulting in this awesome 45 we have here today. Released to lukewarm sales in the Summer of 1965 (limping to #27 R&B), Davis knew what had to be done. I think he saw the sheer energy and star power in Fontella, and realized that she deserved better. Once again working up the hook with Smith and Miner, Davis brought her down to South Michigan Avenue and cut Rescue Me in one take on September 2, 1965. To say that this song was a hit would be an understatement. Yes, it spent a month at the top of the charts that Fall, but it is one of those songs that you still hear all over the place today... one of those songs that will never die.

Bass felt she never received fair compensation for that, and she was right. Her relationship with Chess soured because of it and, although she would chart four more times for the label over the course of the next year, by 1967 she was gone. Moving to Paris, she recorded some Jazz material with her then husband Lester Bowie's Art Ensemble of Chicago, before returning to the States and signing with Stan Lewis' Paula label in 1971. Although the quality of her material remained strong, none of these records dented the charts. After a top shelf release on Epic, Soon As I Touched Him, failed to make any noise as well, Fontella walked away, and went back to singing in Church.

Among the Gospel material she later recorded were two albums she made with her mother, Martha Bass and her brother, David Peaston; From The Root To The Source and Promises - A Family Portrait Of Faith.

David Peaston died on February 1st. Fontella Bass left us last Wednesday, December 26th.

May God Rest Their Souls.

Inez Andrews - Lord Don't Move The Mountain (Songbird 1203)

Lord Don't Move The Mountain

When James Cleveland heard the 22 year old Inez Andrews sing one night, as a substitute for Dorothy Love-Coates in the Gospel Harmonettes, he knew she was something special. He would go on to recommend to his mentor, Queen of Gospel Albertina Walker, that she become a member of The Caravans. The recordings they would make for Savoy's Gospel label over the next several years form the basis of Gospel Music as we know it today. Once Shirley Caesar came aboard in 1958, The Caravans took that music to the next level, just bringing down the house wherever they went. It was Andrews' 'sermonette' on Gospel standard Mary Don't You Weep that made her a household name among Black people in America. As she told Anthony Heilbut; "I know I sang hard... Sam Cooke did a program with us in Los Angeles and screamed so much to keep up, he got sick. He said, 'Girl, you the only singer ever put me to bed!'"

With a voice as big as the whole world, she left The Caravans and formed her own group, The Andrewettes, in 1960. Dubbed The Gospel Songbird, she would rejoin The Caravans briefly in the mid-sixties, before being signed as a solo act by Don Robey, who offered to name his new Peacock subsidiary, Songbird, after her. After Robey sold out to ABC, they brought in the aforementioned Gene Barge to produce an album on her that went straight to number one on the Billboard Gospel LP chart. When they released this monster title track from the LP as a single, it was so huge that it crossed over onto the R&B chart as well, cruising to #48 in the Spring of 1973...

Bishop Inez Andrews, gone home December 19th.

Jimmy McCracklin - Head Over Flip (Imperial 5892)

Head Over Flip

Oakland Blues man Jimmy McCracklin had been making records for a variety of labels since 1945, but it wasn't until he broke things wide open for Leonard Chess with The Walk in 1958 that he got some national recognition, helped in large part by his appearance on the visionary Dick Clark's American Bandstand. After some more label-hopping (including a stop at Hi!), the seasoned McCracklin decided to open his own label, Art-Tone back on the West Coast, and send Just Got To Know all the way to #2 R&B in 1961. Despite the great Christmas Time later that year, and another top twenty R&B hit in early 1962, Jimmy decided to fold Art-Tone and sign with Imperial. This cool B-Side represents his first release on the label. He would go on to hit big for Imperial in 1965 with the #7 R&B smash, Think, and continue to cut for their Minit subsidiary until 1970. After a great 1971 Stax LP, his recording career kind of wound down, but Jimmy would become a mainstay of the Blues circuit, and an influence on generations of musicians.

Dick Clark died on April 18th. Jimmy McCracklin left us December 20th.

One of McCracklin's most memorable compositions, however, is a song he never recorded. It was Initially written for his running partner Lowell Fulson, who took it to #5 R&B in January of 1967. When Stax picked up on it a few months later, Otis & Carla took Tramp even further, all the way to #2 R&B (and #26 on the Hot 100) during the long hot Summer of Love. The bass player on that incendiary record, of course, was a young man by the name of Donald 'Duck' Dunn.

Out of all the people we lost this year, I think Duck's death hit me the hardest. It still just doesn't seem possible that he is no longer with us. The immaculate bottom he held down on hundreds of classic era Stax recordings seems now somehow taken for granted... I don't think any of us expected to lose him so soon.

His passing is just such a game-changer, you know? I mean, with Al Jackson, Jr. gone now almost forty years, I'd venture to say that there are very few of us left who saw the original M.G.'s live, and there was always that hope of one more reunion (albeit with the under-appreciated Steve Potts) down the road. Sadly, that is no longer the case, and the 'dynamic duo' of Cropper & Dunn is no more...

I've Got Dreams To Remember

They just don't come any better than that, folks. Duck passed away in his sleep on tour in Japan on May 13th... We Will Miss You, Soul Man!

Please join me in saying goodbye to these other Greats who have gone on before us to Glory here in 2012:

May They Rest In Peace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The King Cole Trio - The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) - Capitol 90036

The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)

Hi folks... as I've mentioned in the past, this is the one that just slays me every year. As you may know, I'm a huge fan of Johnny Mercer, not only as a composer and singer, but as a founding father of the music industry as we know it today. When he got the idea to form Capitol Records in 1942 ("So I could hear somebody else besides Bing Crosby on the radio," he said), he went out of his way to record quality artists that he felt weren't getting a 'fair shake'.

In 1943 he signed the all black King Cole Trio, a gamble which promptly paid off for the label, with the Trio racking up three number one R&B hits within a year. The trend continued, with Nat Cole's velvet vocals laid over the tasteful accompaniment of Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Williams on double bass keeping The Trio in the top five throughout the War Years. In the Summer of 1946, they were riding high with the seminal (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 climbing to the number three slot during an eleven week stay on the charts. It was during that period that Capitol sent them into the WMCA Studio in New York to create what may just be the most enduring Christmas song of all time. Cole was unhappy with the first 'trio-only' recording (which remained unreleased for over forty years), and begged Mercer to let him re-cut it with a 'String Choir' that August.

He was right, of course, and when Capitol released it around Thanksgiving, it went straight to #3 on both the Pop and R&B charts, and remained a top-seller for them for the rest of the decade. There was a copy on every jukebox in America, and more copies were pressed to meet the demand every December. As the industry began the switch to 45rpm vinyl in 1949, Capitol followed suit. This particular single we have here today is stamped '12-51', and carries the same matrix number (981) as that original 1946 78. Like I said, it just knocks me out, some 66 years after it was recorded.


The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)

In August of 1953, Capitol brought Nat into their Hollywood studio to cut a more lavish version, this time with Nelson Riddle's orchestra. This would become the new holiday juke box release, and the Trio's rendition sort of faded away. In March of 1961, at the label's New York studio, Capitol cut what most consider to be the definitive stereo version, with an orchestra led by Ralph Carmichael. Although they would continue to press the earlier release on juke box 45s for several years, it is that 1961 recording that has become the standard that you still hear on the radio today...

"Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you..." I hope Santa treats you good!