Friday, January 28, 2011

Women's Work Week-The First Lady of P(re)-Funk: Ruth Copeland

In 2008 a wide swath (well, 58% of registered voters) of Americans elected Barack Obama president, in a campaign that promised change...A main component of that change was to be health care reform that increased the number of folks with medical insurance and made other consumer-centric changes in the system, which an even larger percentage of Americans said was broken. After being elected, Mr. Obama went right to work on this reform, and despite stiff resistance, got it passed. In 2010, Republicans made huge gains in the Congress, Senate, and Governerships, by essentially running on change, with the symbol of the change being the repeal of the health care reform that had just passed. Are we spinning our wheels here?




You are probably asking what the heck this has to do with British-born, folk-soul-rock-funk, singer/songwriter/producer Ruth Copeland.  Probably not much, but I will say, that what passes for change nowadays doesn't seem to compare with the changes that were happening when Ruth first arrived in America around 1967. Additionally, the seismic cultural shifts going on in the US at the time, seem to follow Ruth's career arc rather nicely. Of course, I could be totally wrong, 'cause change is not so easy to come by. At any rate, I'd like to start off with this tune Ruth Copeland wrote (and received production credit for), that was an unused master from the sessions that yielded Parliament's 1970 debut LP, Osmium.





I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, by dropping this '72 single, so let me rewind a bit. As a fairly huge (emotionally and physically) P-Funk fan, I've always wondered about Ruth Copeland. How did this British woman come to be involved with George Clinton?

How did a band that almost never worked with material that didn't come from within their (ever-growing) inner circle, come to cut tracks with this woman, who, at the time, might have been all of 22 years old.  Record labels  and questions were pretty much all I had at the start, but in the past few days I've come to find out a lot more.  In the final analysis, I've got to say that Ruth was definitely of her time, and maybe a little bit ahead of it (something I've always thought about Mr. George Clinton.) To be doing what she was doing, when she was doing it, puts her right up there with Betty Davis, as a unique voice at the dawn of funk.  Whether she was just in the right place at the right time (she was), or whether she had some great in's to the record business (she did), or whether she was just doing what she thought she had to do to make it in a business dominated by men, Ms. Copeland got it done.

Unfortunately, I do not have what might be the definitive release of Ruth's work with George: 2002's The Complete Invictus Sessions, but judging from the liner notes of various versions of Osmium, other P-Funk history, and the scant amount of info for Ruth on the web, it wouldn't help.  The hook in most entries on Ruth Copeland is British roots, her association with George Clinton and Funkadelic, and her relationship with record producer/businessman Jeffrey Bowen. There is an undercurrent of sexism throughout these entries. One liner note (First Thangs/Lee Hildebrand), does not mention Ruth Copeland at all, even though she wrote or co-wrote and produced or coproduced nearly half the tracks Parliament cut for the Invictus label, not to mention that she sang on a couple of tracks.


The 2001 reissue of Osmium (notes by Peter Doggett, explains Ruth's participation as a deal George Clinton did with Jeffery Bowen to give Ruth credits in exchange for his working on George's record.  Bowen had been a staff producer at Motown (the notes say he was currently a Motown "staffer") and would eventually become Ruth Copeland's husband and manager. He left Berry Gordy with Holland-Dozier-Holland when they started Invictus two years prior, around 1968/9. I know this is all nit-picking and there probably are a few grains of truth to the idea that Mr. Bowen was trying to help Ruth out (and perhaps something more personal), but the dismissal by Mr. Doggett in the notes leaves a lot to be desired.

Nowhere, do I find an instance of George Clinton ever mentioning Ruth Copeland. Funnily enough, in my two main Ruth Copeland sources (Rolling Stone articles from 1971 and 1976), George Clinton and/or Funkadelic are never mentioned either. That is very strange for '71, since a huge chunk of her backing band were FUNKADELIC.  Money issues between George and the youngsters (the guys in Parliament [vocalists] were older than the guys in the band) saw them walk out on him at various times from '70 to '71, for various reasons, including becoming Ruth's touring band. Do the 30,000 word liner notes in the 2 disc Funkadelic Singles collection by Rob Bowman mention this...nope.

The additional Parliament songs Ruth Copeland was involved in 70-72.
Breakdown

Oh Lord Why Lord/Prayer

The Silent Boatman





So was Osmium the record George wanted to make? Or was Funkadelic (the Westbound debut), his vision?  Judging from what came later..these were both transitional debut records with Osmium the more experimental (and a little disjointed) of the two. One thing is for sure, George Clinton and his band were no longer a slick dressing soul group patterned after the Temptations, but a pscyhedelicized, highly volitile, funk/rock band. After a decade of kicking around the fringes of the music biz and tasting a little success, George Clinton, his band, and their split personalities, finally had their first long players. George Clinton was right around 30 years old.

Ruth Copeland's first LP, Self Portrait, arrived in shops just a few weeks after Osmium.  Ruth was about 20 years old. Her path to debut vinyl was a little more straight forward, but convoluted nonetheless. Pieced together from the Rolling Stone articles, it looks a little like this:
  • She was born in Consett, England (a country town near Newcastle) sometime around 1950 to lower middle class parents.
  • When she was 16, she was an art student, who broke off her schooling to move to London following the sudden death of her mother.
  • She gigged in London with a band called Ed & The Intruders (zero info found on them), her sister moved to Detroit (don't know why), she was "discovered" by Allen Klein (Beatles,Stones),and she received contract offers with Apple and Invictus Records. She chose Invictus, perhaps because her sister was where the label was based, and was signed by Jeffrey Bowen in 1968.
  • She arrived in Detroit when she was 18, dated, became pregnant, and wed (apparently in 1970) an unnamed Detroit Lion. It is interesting to note that on her first album there's a song , "No Commitment" about the a relationship that ended after the birth of a child.  It is unclear whether she had an abortion, or not. There's also a tune called, "To William In The Night." A look at the 1968 Detroit Lions Roster shows 3 Williams (QB Bill Munson, Tackle Bill Cotrell, and RB Billy Tripplett), but no further info is available...including when she might have gotten a divorce. Many articles and bios, say that she came to Invictus after her marriage to Jeffrey Bowen, but that is not the case. She couldn't have married him until 70/71 (at least according to things she said in interviews).
  • She was originally slated to be the leader of a female singing group, New Play, who made 1 single that was never released. Instead, she worked with George Clinton on her debut. LP.

Self Portrait (the cover is a self portrait..I wonder where that idea came from?) is, like Osmium, all over the stylistic map, mixing baroque folk confessions, Motown pop,opera covers, and harder blues rock. To be honest, it ain't perfect. Her voice, when not in rock mode, is an acquired taste. The lyrics are a little forced, too.

For historical purposes mostly (especially the Eddie Hazel solo on the album closing opera tune) Self Portrait..

From a Ruth perspective, she she got to make the record she wanted to make as a 20 year old music biz neophyte.  From a Funkadelic perspective, this was more of a session gig.  Bernie Worrell, Tawl Ross, Billy Nelson,Tiki Fulwood, and Eddie Hazel, were playing on many Invictus sessions, as Holland -Dozier-Holland were trying to create an assembly line set up similar to what was going on at Motown. For George, who was figuring his way through the system, it was an opportunity.  My opinion is that George, Ruth, and the band were all bristling at the control of the old school studio system, but there were other factors at work, including the fact that Jeffrey Bowen was falling for Ruth, becoming deeply involved with her career as her manager, mentor, and within a year, her husband.
No Commitment

Music Box


Reviews for Ruth's record were not spectacular (nor for Osmium) and sales weren't particularly brisk either. George Clinton was also forced to stop using the name Parliament (no one seems to have a definitive answer why), Funkadelics were defecting left and right, and general craziness reigned in Detroit. Despite all this the wheels of the record biz continued to turn. At some point in '71 Ruth Copeland was asked to join the Sly Stone tour as an opening act for the Family Stone and Rare Earth. Funkadelic was backing her on the tour and helping her make her second album.  According to Ruth, she was eventually kicked off the tour because of Sly's jealousy, and the fact that Funkadelic were blowing the doors off as an opener. That did not stop Sly from inviting her out to LA to live with him after the tour though..to help her with her career. So, theoretically, during 71 -72, she married Jeffrey Bowen, went on tour with Sly, made a second album, left Bowen and Invictus (with a 3 year, you-can-make-no-recordings clause in her contract), and ultimately moved in with Sly Stone for a year.
I Am What I Am is far superior to her debut, much more focused on the rock funk sound and less loose lyrically. It also sounded like a band album, as opposed to session cats backing a studio singer, which makes sense, since she was hanging with the Funkadelic guys for almost a year.

I Am What I Am...


Most nights on tour, Ruth wore a variation of the Native American themed outfit she had on for the cover of her second album, and in the '71 Rolling Stone interview she talks about getting tired of her image, getting tired of the opening slot, and says nothing about her band (Dammit, no one ever thinks of my needs).  A big chunk of the piece talks about her perfect belly button  and, "how a lot of her acceptance doubtless came from her singular beauty, but now she has to transcend it, and somehow find an approach which will put her music across." Oy vey, thanks Rolling Stone (Timothy Ferris).

Suburban Family Lament

Play With Fire

The Medal


I Am What I Am wasn't released until '72, but it seems like Ruth had left Detroit for good well before that, and was allegedly living with Sly Stone. The difference between her first records is stark: moving away from the direct confessional toward anti-war messages and social commentary. Over the top, sure,but manna for P-Funk fans and a good recap of attitudes at the end of the 60's, and the coming malaise of the 70's.

 
Ruth's malaise was also a product of her Invictus contract that prevented her from recording until '75 and perhaps her relationship with Sly Stone, "So I came out to the West Coast and what it was was that he wanted me," said Ruth in a '76 interview that just happened to coincide with the release of her comeback record, Take Me To Baltimore.  She goes on to say, "and I fell in love with him." They did some tracks together (they remain unreleased), but he didn't let her perform. Ruth cites Sly's "insecurity, that's probably the only reason anybody wouldn't want their partner to fulfill themselves. I just knew it was wrong, and that's when I started to grow away from him." Evidently the reason why Sly's Fresh took so long to come out had a little to do with Ruth Copeland . Ruth headed East to New York (and by her admission rock bottom), where she was coaxed back to perform in 1974, at a radio station gig in Baltimore, by Badfinger member Peter Ham, she and him having been voted favorite male and female vocalists by a radio station there. She also mentions in the article that she was just about to audition for the role of Janis Joplin in fictional version of the rock icon's life called, Pearl. I'm pretty sure that movie was never made.
Cliches

Heaven


So with things looking up, she met Daryl Hall, who helped her get a deal with RCA and wrote and sang the single, "Heaven" with her.  The album as a whole has none of the rough edges of the Invictus material, reflecting the light funk (with a few guitar flourishes), smooth R&B, and disco that was considered radio worthy in 1976.  There's an outside producer (Ralph Moss), many strings, and a general reserve over these proceedings. It isn't a bad record, but it makes you appreciate the abandon of the Invictus sides.

Take Me to Baltimore...

A lot of folks got a chance to see Ruth perform around this time, and the one's I've heard from still remember the shows as some of the best they've ever seen.  According to the '76 article she was starting a production company and swearing to "never let herself be dragged around by a man again." Sadly though, after the tour that came with Baltimore, there is absolutely nothing out there about Ruth Copeland. There aren't too many folks who did as much as she did in those 10 years (and for 2 or 3 of them she was just chilling)..quite a run for a young lass from Consett.

On the tune, "Some Hearts Need To Sing The Blues," the out chorus repeats, "I lived my life...for me," and that sums it up pretty well, that and this quote from the '76 interview: "I used to think that  you had to fuck somebody to get ahead. I was programmed that way... I used to say, Ah, yes touch my breasts, but not anymore."  Say what you will about that, but Ruth's songs and attitude clearly bring into focus the changes that happened between the 60's and 70's.  It wasn't an easy road to travel for women back then and it's still no picnic today. Change doesn't come so easy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Women's Work Week:Another Prodigy From Gary, Indiana-Kellee Patterson

Right around the time Michael Jackson and his brothers were tearing up talent shows in Gary, Indiana, there was a teenage woman named Pat Patterson who was providing stiff competition to the soon-to-be famous siblings.  Pat parlayed her talent show experience into a brief pageant career that saw her become Miss Gary, and then, in 1971, the first black Miss Indiana.

The Jacksons, went on to their well documented career, but Pat's story is pretty interesting,too. Upon returning to Gary after Miss America she secured a job as a host on a Chicago public affairs program (Harambee- all pull together in Swahili) and continued her singing career. She also contemplated an acting career, turned down an offer to record for Motown, traded pat for Kellee, and moved to California.

When she was in LA (I surmise) she met the man who would be a big part of her career for the next 10 years, keys player and record exec, Gene Russell.  Russell, founder of the seminal afro-centric urban jazz label, Black Jazz, would have a hand in each of Kellee Patterson's 4 albums, as a player or producer. He would also marry the former Miss America contestant.

Here's how Black Jazz describes itself:
Black Jazz Records was introduced to the public in the early 70’s by internationally renowned jazz pianist Gene Russell. Mr. Russell recognized the need for a jazz music record label which would produce and distribute quality recordings targeted toward the growing market of African centric awareness.
In it's heyday, Black Jazz Records represented a new and fresh alternative to traditional jazz, embodying the spirit of the black/urban awakening of the civil rights period. During it's six year existence, the record label made a major impact on the jazz world, both domestically and in foreign territories.
The Black Jazz roster consisted of ten superior instrumentalists and vocalists that included:
Gene Russell - Piano
Rudolph Johnson - Saxophone
Calvin Keys - Guitar
Walter Bishop, Jr. - Piano
Chester Thompson - Organ
Henry Franklin - Bass
Doug Carn - Piano, Organ, Keyboards
Jean Carn - Vocalist
Kellee Paterson - Vocalist
The Awakening - Instrumental Group


Kellee was a long way from Gary on quite a different path than the Jacksons. Perhaps the least out-there record in the Black jazz catalog, Kellee's Maiden Voyage (1973) is still a pretty cool jazz vocal record, including the first time I've heard words to the Herbie Hancock penned title cut.





Kellee's Maiden Voyage...












Black Jazz closed shop in 1976, so Gene Russell inked a deal for Kellee with Shadybrook. A peek at the Shadybrook-subsidiary of GRT (an early proponent of cassettes)- catalog shows the beginnings of the disco outfreakage. Kellee's 1976 offering (Kellee) was definitely leaning that way, but still retains some of the jazz feel of the first record.  That jazz/groove sound is probably what drew beat diggers to this record in the 90's, as Kellee's version (one of a bunch of covers on the LP) of Barry White's I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby began to be compiled extensively. It's kind of cool to hear Kelle's high pitches interpreting the baritone of the Big Man. Another highlight, is the vocal version of Grover Washington's Mister Magic.








Kellee..












1977 saw Kellee fresh faced on the album cover, but with a leaner funk sound and grittier vocals on tracks like Moving In The Right Direction and If It Don't Fit Don't Force it (not a George Clinton cover). There's a bit of disco and pop too, but the jazz is pretty much gone.









Be Happy...











Two years later, still on Shadybrook, but looking very sophisticated, Kellee released All The Things You Are..a full blown disco record with some ballads thrown in. She would not make another record and as far as I can tell, her movie career didn't pan out either. I dunno how her relationship with Gene was going, but he passed away in 1981 at the age of 49 (Kellee was 32 then).
Let Go,Let Go








Kellee's Last Stand...














Besides losing a spouse and mentor at an early age, the Kellee story has always seemed a little sad to me. Beyond the  personal loss, her career follows a path that a lot of music did  in the 70's. You can almost see the promise of the time (the community oriented Black Jazz) being consumed by the ever present need to make bucks, stay current, and be a part of the music industry. Was it Kellee that got Gene Russell thinking Berry Gordy/Diana Ross dreams? Or did they both just see the writing on the wall?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Streams of Booze:The Bottle Let Me Down



  1. Get Drunk - Drag The River
  2. Rye Whiskey - Blue Mountain
  3. Women Without Whiskey - Drive-By Truckers
  4. Drinking Jim Crow - Guided By Voices
  5. Alcohol - Robert Jay
  6. Gettin' Drunk - Johnny "Guitar" Watson
  7. Let Me Go Home, Whiskey - Amos Milburn
  8. Quiet Whiskey - Wynonie Harris
  9. Whiskey Trail - Los Lobos
  10. If The River Was Whiskey - Rising Sons
  11. Alcoholic - Fishbone
  12. 2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other - Califone
  13. The Happy End (The Drunk Room) - Mercury Rev
  14. Too Drunk To Dream - Magnetic Fields
  15. My Old Drunk Friend - Freakwater
  16. Whiskey Head Woman - Jo Ann Kelly
  17. Meanwhile at the Bar A Drunkard Muses - Arab Strap
  18. Alcohol - The Kinks
  19. Wine - James Luther Dickinson
  20. Whiskey In The Jar - Thin Lizzy
  21. Whiskey Woman - Flammin' Groovies
  22. Whiskey and Women - Black Ace
  23. The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter - Laura Cantrell
  24. Liquor, Beer, and Wine - Rev. Horton Heat
  25. The Bottle Let Me Down - Merle Haggard
  26. Sunrise - Mark Lanegan

FF Rewind:Darrow Fletcher-Northern Soul King

 FF=Funky Friday (Originally Posted 10.9.2009)

The other day we had a discussion about the demise of the album format, as folks turn more often these days to individual tracks, the playlist, and the shuffle, as their preferred mode of listening. It all seems so new, but really it's the album that's the (relatively) new concept. Up until the technology allowed for the album in the 50's, music was sold, as is rapidly re-becoming the fashion, 1 tune at a time (plus a bonus B-side) on 78's, then 45's,then the dreaded cassingle, and finally (as single song selling was going out of fashion in favor of the gigantic record company piggy bank of digital discs) as the CD single.

Of course, nowadays single songs rule and albums are rapidly becoming an esoteric pursuit for music afficianados only. The album, perfected in the 70's as a transmission of an artists current output, is being ripped apart for playlists and scrutinized for tracks that aren't "worth it." I don't fall on either side and I hope the album stays, but I will never underestimate the power of a single, especially when it arrives on a 45.

Soul (and then funk) man Darrow Fletcher came up in the time when albums were not the typical mode for soul music. Sure there were LP's in '66, but the concept of the soul LP was still just a gleam in the eye of folks like Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. In fact, though he cut close to 20 singles in an active career that spanned 9 labels and 13 years, Darrow Fletcher never made an album. I don't know the why's and wherefore's of all that, but I do know it makes his records a little more rare and a lot more enticing to crate diggers, especially those of the Northern Soul variety, to whom Darrow is a legend. 


That's Darrow singing at 2006's Cleethorpe's Weekender, where organizers spared no expense to track down the long retired Fletcher, whose rare 45's have fueled dancers for years. The Northern folks have basically rescued his oeuvre which consists of Motwn-esque kid soul (his first records came out when he was 14) to a more mature funk sound that came in with his 70's records.
First up, 'cause it's Funky Friday, is 1970's Now Is The Time For Love, a percussion,flute, and wah wah thing that was released on the tiny Genna label.

Now Is The Time For LoveDon't mind that 45 surface noise..


Funk was not all Mr. Fletcher did as evidenced by this other A+B from 1970, cut for the larger (but often very soulful UNI label)
When Love Calls-A/Changing by The Minute-B





Next up are the tunes that tend to tickle the fancy of Northern Soul folk..singles Darrow cut in '66 for the Groovy label when he was barely a teen..His debut and his 3rd record.
The Pain Gets A Little Deeper


Gotta Draw The Line


Finally,' cause of the day, I'll give you a taste of his late work with a 1978 single he cut for Atco/Atlantic..The voice was still there, and the groove is no slouch, but funk was on it's downhill slope by then. So, after years of scuffling around in the minors, Darrow got called up to the majors for one more shot. Evidently (and it's amazing considering who got to make albums by '78) the suits didn't have an album in the marketing plans for Mr. Fletcher either, but with the scant info available on him, I can't really say why he never cut an LP or why he dropped out of the biz. Many thanks to the soul collective across the pond for bringing him back and teaching me yet another thing I didn't know. The education continues...
Improve-1978


I'll submit that Darrow Fletcher is at least one reason why the album isn't the be all and end all of music delivery. It's kind of fitting (though somewhat annoying) that there isn't a Darrow Fletcher album or, at the very least ,a compilation of his work out there for folks to dig. Of course, some would prefer the 45's, and for now that's all we've got.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jazz At The Cross(over)roads:Joe Farrell

This one goes out to the Record Feind

Blame it on The Beatles, blame it on the elevation of jazz to college musiccurricula, or blame it on free jazz (with the civil rights battle resulting in law, the search for freedom moved inward), but no matter how you look at it, jazz went through some changes around 1965.  Some called it a death (not for the first time or the last), but the facts were, that musicians had to make choices.

One could go the academic route, the hardcore free jazz route, the fusion/electric route, or the soul jazz route (or maybe a combination of all four). Cities that had strong jazz scenes started to see them die out, music funding began dropping out of school budgets, and a decline in the overall commercial and cultural footprint of jazz began to shrink.  Of course though, folks did not stop playing jazz.

Saxman Joe Farrell moved to New York in '59 and played with Maynard Ferguson, Slide Hampton, Thad Jones, Elvin Jones and Charles Mingus, earning a good rep as a versatile reed man. During the 60's he played in both jazz and rock sessions, a few produced by Creed Taylor, for whom Joe recorded his first date as a leader, Follow Your Heart (1970).

Early on CTI (the label Creed Taylor started in 1967) records were on the cutting edge of post hard bop. Not free jazz, but not compromising at all. They sold decently too, featuring top players like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones. By the time Farrell cut his debut (he was also playing in Return to Forever at the time), elements of funk,fusion, and rock (commercial forces that Creed Taylor could not let pass) were gradually becoming the sound of choice for jazz musicians (interested in cutting records).

Straight Jazz" aficionados and critics might've bristled at the electric guitars and pianos, but these records were putting food on the table and leaving behind a legacy that wouldn't really be recognized until the hip hop era, as progressive samplers found funky beats galore on these records.  Joe Farrell had the chops to play anything and this is where he was at in the 70's. 

Moon Germs (1972)
Bass - Stanley Clarke
Drums - Jack DeJohnette
Piano - Herbie Hancock
Soprano Saxophone, Flute - Joe Farrell 
 
Inoculate for Moon Germs here... 
There's a bit of a glitch on Time's Lie..sorry




Sage Francis sampling the cut Moon Germs

 Upon This Rock (1974)


Bass - Herb Bushler
Drums - Jim Madison
Guitar - Joe Beck
Saxophone [Tenor, Soprano], Flute - Joe Farrell
 
 
 





 Black Sheep Sampling the cut Upon this Rock




Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Getting Well With Chocolate Genius

This one needs a little backstory...I started music blogging at the website MOG.com a little over four years ago. It was my first experience with any kind of on line community and the connections (internet and live) that got made in the beta times of the site were very tight. After being on the site for a year we lost one of our most respected bloggers to a sudden illness. His name was Crash Pryor and he should be checked. I never thought the bonds I formed on the site would effect me so much, but it was very difficult to post for awhile. Chocolate Genius was the record that finally got me to move on.
The album is now out of print (81.25 for a new copy on Amazon, but $2 bucks for used-are CD's that collectible?), but it is most definitely worth your time.

From 2007..


It's funny, I was thinking about this post, and just this morning my wife- the ultimate random listener, because she lets me load her ipod- came to me and said, "You know, music can be very therapeutic, I haven't been listening on the way to work lately, but that Marvin Gaye song (Pride and Joy) really got me back on track."
Lately folks have been turning to MOG for solace through song. Hitting an emotional rough patch and sharing it on line is a brave thing to do, and supplying musical pick-me-ups in posts and mix tapes is a huge part of MOG. I've lost track of the numbers of incoming and outgoing packages that I've been involved in. For a music junkie there is nothing quite so cool as getting mixes in the mail, so thanks for that MOG.

I could have used MOG in 1998, because I was musically self-medicating for depression at the time. Now, I can see how folks in a bad way would be drawn to upbeat, uplifting tunes, but when I'm low I sometimes look for somebody in the same situation. Chocolate Genius-Black Music was the soundtrack to my sorrow back then, and after listening back this week, the album remains a personal, moving, and detailed look at a man on the edge.

Half A Man


When I first received the record as a promo, I was intrigued by a couple of things. For starters, the cover and CD art (though once you hear the music they make perfect sense), don't give away what's inside. After seeing them, I wanted to know more, so I checked out the booklet. Further interest ensued when I saw that the musicians on the record included, Chris Wood and John Medeski (from my favorite law firm name sounding jazz,funk,jam band, Medeski,Martin, and Wood), as well as, Tom Waits collaborator Marc Ribot. So basically, we had the cream of downtown New York working with the songs of this cat, Marc Anthony Thompson. The biggest mystery was: Who is Marc Anthony Thompson? And why are all these cool cats playing with him. Turns out he's a singer- songwriter from NYC who had 2 prior records out under his real name on major labels.

Why had I never heard them? Because Mr.Thompson is an excellent songwriter who can be pinned down to no one style and he's black. Did major labels know what to do with his music in 1984 or 1989…No they did not. His first two records we're diverse, conceptual projects that we're definitely not R&B, and so he was dropped. His return to shelves 10 years later was my introduction, and I was blown away.

Safe and Sound


Since 1998 he's released 2 more Chocolate Genius records and worked extensively in theatre and film music. I saw him play in NYC with Stephin Merritt and Ben Folds in a songwriters series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he is a fixture in and around town. He is the type of guy who is a songwriter's songwriter, really respected by his peers and fans.

The Black Music album is a song cycle about the life of a directionless, depressed, cynical and probably alcoholic guy. Around 1998 that is just about the state I was in, and the words and sounds capture the feelings so well, so perfectly, that I could relate immediately. The music has the rumbling, clanging, atmospheric quality that Tom Waits records have, the vox is bruised, throat unclear, sounding like a man with a hangover. The next song, My Mom, is the one that made this album an all time fave for me. It talks about a son returning to his childhood home, after 5 years, checking in with his gruff father, and spending time with his mother, who has Alzheimer's.

My Mom


It's been 5 years and some change
And this world is getting so strange
But this house, it smells just the same
And my mom, my sweet mom..
She don't remember my name

Being the oft -moving son of a prodigal son and having a grandmother who was afflicted with the mind erasing disease, I am totally amazed by how Marc Anthony Thompson drilled down into the feelings created by the prodigals return. This song would have been enough to seal the critical deal for me on this record, and though no song hits me quite the way Mom does, the takes he has on the themes he covers ring true throughout. Whether he's talking about beating yourself up about a failed relationship(Half A Man) being separated from your child by a break up(Safe and Sound), or alcoholism (Hangover Five), nails are being hit on the head, light bulbs are popping on, and tears are rolling. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it also can bring light, and this record has always done that for me.







Go get Black Music

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Memphis: Center Of The American Pop Universe?

Memphis, Tennessee  is the first big town you reach as you travel up the Mississippi River. A crossroads between city and country, as well as north and south, it may be overshadowed by state mate Nashville, as a music center, but a closer look reveals Memphis as the town where the American  pop music stew first came to a boil. (I disqualify New Orleans, because it's gumbo belongs to something larger than the US melting pot.).

I submit these four Memphis stories from my MOG archive for your consideration:

Making Things (O.V.) Wright -The Other Side Of Memphis Soul
O.V. Wright - 10/9/39 - 11/16/80
"Soul is church. Just changing 'Jesus' to 'baby'. That's all it is."-O.V. Wright

The Stax/Motown dichotomy is just too delicious for music historians to leave alone. Motown, the northern label, a black owned business creating major pop hits whose success was rivaled only by The Beatles vs. the white owned, but highly integrated, southern label, Stax, whose artists introduced a gritty soul sound to the masses.

The influence and importance of these two great outfits plus their back stories have recently been subject to (relatively) massive coverage. I'm not complaining about this in any way, except for the fact that Motown and Stax are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what soul has to offer. I guess I could complain about the constant flogging of Stax and Motown by their corporate owner, Universal, and how it skews the attention away from deserving soul artists from all over the country, especially singers from the south, which Stax represents only by location, and not necessarily in style. The history of soul music in America can not be shoehorned into Motown/Stax, hell the history of soul music in Memphis,Tenessee isn't even covered by Motown/Stax. Fact is, Stax was just one of a number of labels documenting the Memphis Soul scene, that are deserving of attention. I'm not looking askance at Carla and Rufus Thomas or Otis Redding or Johhny Taylor or Sam & Dave, I just want to shine a light on O.V. Wright, whose output for labels like Goldwax, Backbeat and Hi, is material of the highest order.

But let me get to some music. If you'd like a complete breakdown of O.V Wright's career,please check this excellent piece by Ray Ellis. I cribbed most of the facts I relate from there, so all credit to Ray. There's also more music to hear there so don't hesitate to hit that post

1971's Nickel and A Nail was recorded in Memphis for the Backbeat label (the label was based in Texas and had a national distribution deal with ABC records-later bought by MCA) and produced by Willie Mitchell (Al Green, Otis Clay,Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles).


Jumping back a few years to '65, O.V. had been singing in a gospel outfit (with soul great James Carr) called the Harmony Echoes, who were rehearsed by musician, song writer Roosevelt Jamison. Jamison wrote a tune called, That's How Strong My Love Is and tried to sell it to Stax (no deal at the time) and then made a demo of it with O.V. Wright which he played for Goldwax Records owner Quinton Claunch, who signed both O.V. and James Carr.

That's How Strong My Love Is ended up as a b-side that DJ's liked better than the A, so it became a regional hit for O.V., that was quickly covered by Otis Redding..effectively stalling OV's first single (Stax deal with Atlantic records pretty much insured that Otis' version would receive national promotion and airplay that Goldwax couldn't dream of.)



















After about 5 singles for Goldwax, O.V. began a long association with Willie Mitchell and the Backbeat label. In '73 this partnership (w/The Memphis Horns and Hi rhythm Section) yielded the Memphis Unlimited LP and the tune, I'd Rather Be (Blind,Cripple, and Crazy).



Except for gospel singles cut near the time of his death in 1980, OV would work exclusively with Willie Mitchell for the rest of his career. Completely ignoring the disco outfreakage of the mid to late 70's OV continued to record deep southern soul records until he passed away (drugs and booze were major factors) at age 41.

The box set pictured below contains 5 early to mid 70's O.V. Wright LP's plus some of the early Goldwax singles and now's as good a time as any to catch up with one of the greatest soul singers of all time by seeking it out. Drop the needle or hit play anywhere in Overton Vertis Wright's career, though, and you'll have made the right call. This is the real deal.

"When you gave O.V. Wright a song, the song belonged to him. Nobody would do it that way again. In fact, I think O.V. Wright was the greatest blues artist I've ever produced."-Willie Mitchell
 Go get it: Part 1 Part 2

James Luther Dickinson 

Besides having a son named Cody (there's also a son of Jim named Luther-they are in the North Mississippi All Stars), besides producing Big Star and Mudhoney, besides playing piano on The Stones Wild Horses , Aretha's Spirit in the Dark, The Flamin' Groovies Teen Age Head, and Dylan's Time Out Of Mind, and besides embodying the musical stew that is Memphis, Tennessee, James Luther "Jim' Dickinson found time to make a few records of his own, including his 1972 LP debut, Dixie Fried.
 Dixie Fried

Wine

He would go on making music until his death in 2009, including solo records, his work with Mudboy and The Neutrons, and several compilations of Memphis music showcasing new acts and historically important folks like Furry Lewis.

Being further up the Mississippi, Memphis was a intersection for country,jazz,blues, rhythm, and rock. Jim Dickinson distilled all that joy and history into the records he made as a performer,sideman, and producer. Look around for his story..it's what American pop music, at it's best, is all about.


Nick Tosches on Dixie Fried- "a dark, gale-force reworking of old Southern music, a baptism of loud and dangerous rhythms, that stands as one of the great testaments not only of rock 'n' roll but also of its ancient and unfathomable roots."


Go get deep fried..


When Detroit Met Memphis...The Beginning of the End?

Conventional critical wisdom (along with a little marketing and major label influence) would have you believe that the output of Stax studios in Memphis took a downward slide with the convergence of three factors.
  1. The death of Otis Redding
  2. The end of the Stax association with Atlantic Records
  3. The end of Jim Stewart (founder- w/Estelle Axton) running the company
Whatever the reason (and there is validity in the 3 reasons), things began to change at Stax with the arrival of Al Bell to run the business in '69. Al Bell had (Motown)dreams of world domination and he felt he needed to look outside the insular group (although he knew they were talented) that had fueled the studio's rise.
One of the folks Bell turned to was producer Don Davis; a cat who had deep roots in Detroit. Davis was assigned to produce new Stax signee Johnnie Taylor. Their relationship lasted about 10 years, culminating with "Disco Lady" in '77.

Johnnie Taylor arrived at Stax in '67 like so many Southern Soul belters..fresh from the Gospel circuit and lead duties with the Highway QC's. His first record was strictly Stax, cut with the MG's, and very much in the southern soul/blues mode. It was one of the last records Stax released with Atlantic, before the big changes began.

The long and short of it, is that Atlantic Records had made an incredibly one sided deal with Stax, where they retained all the rights to Stax records that were released on Atlantic. So in '68 Stax, now released from Atlantic, found themselves in the position of having to start over. Stax owned nothing, no Otis Redding, no Sam & Dave, no Carla Thomas, no Green Onions. Founder Jim Stewart didn't think he was up for rebuilding so he called in Al Bell.

Al Bell liked the family atmosphere at Stax but he needed to make a lot of records and make 'em quick (like Motown). He had to create an "instant catalogue," to replace the chestnuts Stax no longer owned. He brought in Don Davis to help make all these new records.

Johnnie Taylor got busy, cranking out one of the first hits for the "new"Stax- Who's Making Love, a record that sounded a little more Detroit than Memphis. Taylor never abonded the Blues though, cutting records in "southern" and "northern" styles throughtout his tenure at Stax..earning the title of "philosopher of soul."

His career spanned into the late 90's, as he returned to soulful Blues for the Malaco label, cuting records almost until his death in 2000. A versatile singer who had hits with gospel ,soul,blues and disco records, he is indicitive of the talent Stax had after the famous and PBS - approved Stax of the late 60's was long gone.

Don't let the marketers fool ya..there was more than enough great stuff going on at Stax post- Atlantic and a lot of it comes from Johnnie Taylor..it's nice that the new Concord/Universal deal is slowly bringing this stuff to light, because it is indeed worthy.

To show how Stax was gradually beginning to include the Detroit sound, check out Johnnie's '69 cover of George Clinton's Detroit recorded-I Wanna Testify, which was The Parliaments first big hit '68, prior to the earthly arrival of the mothership.
Johnnie Taylor-Testify (I Wanna)

The Parliaments-I Wanna Testify



















Booker T & the MG's:More Than Just Green Onions

In the mid to late 70's, in it's pop hey day, disco, ran roughshod over R&B and Funk, basically shuffling both genres out of the pop culture mix. Disco was cheap to make, a producers medium, and it was popular. Quickly gone were all the fussy artists and their expensive bands..the biz had found the solution.
Some folks didn't go for it though..the anti-disco backlash quickly drove the genre back to the underground..where it flourished. One holdover from the disco era was the primacy of the DJ..as record promoter, remixer, and tastemaker. As club music splintered off into many combinations throughout the 80's the DJ's remained.

One section of the DJ world played "classics"..not necessarily disco, but whatever the DJ thought would move the crowd. For the most part they didn't do beat matching or long transitions between songs or very much mixing at all. It was all about the songs, the whole songs.There was no rush, folks had come to dance, and they were ready to go til sun came up. These Loft parties had a real communal feel..no velvet ropes..everyone was welcome.

One of the tunes that made the cut in the Loft scene in New York was from the last Booker T & The MG's record, Melting Pot. A long percussion filled track, Melting Pot was a far cry from Green Onions and the short instrumentals of the MG's early Stax years. This track has jazz,funk, and tribal elements that would become the building blocks of various versions of house music that would emerge as the 80's melted into the 90's. That DJ's singled it out is also a testament to their open minds and the "all about the music" spirit that drove post-disco clubland. The 80's were real progressive in that regard, breaking down boundaries, as the music business kept throwing them up.

The whole Melting Pot album is worth your time, but the title cut, very futuristic for 1970, may be the most influential in the MG's impressive catalog.
Booker T & The MG's-Melting Pot






Memphis Funk Stew...












 My little Memphis excursion here is really just the tip of the iceberg...I didn't even mention Otis Redding, Sun Records, B.B. King, or Al Green, so you know the river runs deep through the Bluff City.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Stu Gardner- The Final Dig?


original version 1.5.2009, remix version 5.27.2010

About 2 Years ago I made a post about a cat that I was having trouble finding info on. Despite still being alive, having recorded for Stax and Motown, and having worked extensively with Bill Cosby, the information available on Stu Gardner was limited to just a few hits on the net that provided limited and very specific data. I pulled together what I found into the best timeline I could get for Stu.

Most excellently, my little aggregation project kicked up enough dust to get a response from "Stu's people" (which was cool) and more importantly bloggers, who helped dig out a lot more music and data on Stu.

The post is a fave of mine because it led me to 3 albums and a single that barely make a blip on the internet, but are incredibly solid soul and funk records. So what follows is the original post with additional tunes and info. I hope you dig or re-dig Stu.
Stu Gardner-Drive Me (1966-A&M 827)


One of the ways I try to keep track of all the music I listen to, is to keep a file of songs that make an impression on me. When I get a CD's worth, I burn it and listen to the songs some more. In working through the last few volumes of The Complete Motown Singles, one artist kept grabbing me:Stu Gardner.

Stu recorded for Hugh Masekela's Chisa label, which had a deal for distribution with Motown from '69 to '71. During that period Stu made 5 songs. I had never heard any of them prior to the boxes, and they are all good. They don't sound anything like the Motown of the period, 'cause these are real Soul records, with more than a touch of funk. Not only is the sound pure Soul, but Stu can really sing. I'm talking Joe Tex,Otis Redding type singing. I had to see what was up with Stu, so I started digging. Although there weren't a lot of initial sources, Stu's story runs long and deep.

(The 1966 Drive Me single is something I didn't have the first time I posted about Stu. Spanish Northern Soul collector, Danny (aka Soul Rocket) hooked me up)

Looking for an overview I headed to All Music Guide, and there was nothing. The great notes in the Motown boxes started to point me in the right direction, mentioning his early band, the Stu Gardner Trio and an appearance as a soul singer in John Boorman's 1967 film, Point Blank. (All Music Guide recently added an entry for Stu, coincidence? More on that later)


On a google search I pulled up a Wolfgang's vault page with an old Filmore West Poster, showing "the Trio" opening on a few Blues gigs in '67..Stu's in the middle, down below John Lee Hooker.






















The song in the video appears on the movie soundtrack, but I haven't been able to dig that up, or any other recordings of the Stu Gardner Trio. Stu's Trio was also busy as an opener for Masekela at LA's Whisky A Go-Go and this led to the release of Stu's debut, To Soul with Love. Did I mention that Stu also played keyboards..
 (4 brothers hooked this one up after the original post)

 Released in '67 on Revue Records (A Division of Uni)To Soul With Love is pretty much as rare as an unindicted Illinois Governor. Chased after by Northern Soul folks and Deep Soul collectors, it was difficult to come up with a picture of the cover, let alone tunes. Many thanks to the splendid In Dangerous Rhythm blog for posting tunes from this record. A real revelation to me. Hugh Masekela produced To Soul With Love, backed by the Crusaders.
I'll Always Love You

Soul Wrecker

Never Gonna Hurt Again

To Soul with Love didn't sell well, evidently it received very little promotion, because UNI was only interested in Hugh Masekela and The Crusaders, so Stewart Levine (Hugh's partner) and the Chisa label looked for a new home at Motown. Motown was looking for new labels and looking to expand to LA, so it was a perfect fit. Over the next 2 and half years Chisa put out some great records for Motown, but none of them were hits, including Stu's records.
(You'll find these tunes on volumes 9+10 of the Complete Motown Singles)
Home On The Range

It's A Family Thang

Mend This Generation

Expressin' My Love

I Don't Dream No More

Sidetrack 1
There is no doubt that Bill Cosby would've seen Stu Gardner around LA in this period (68-71). Bill was signed to UNI records for one and releasing his own music records along with his ultra popular comedy stylings. Here's Bill's 1969 single Hikky Burr pt.1..cut as Bill Cosby with the Bunions Bradford Band. It was a theme to a short lived sit com. As you can see on the label it was made with Quincy Jones and featured the LA session elite (Carol Kaye, Earl Palmer,etc.).
Bill Cosby- Hicky Burr-Pt.1

Many thanks to the Fu Fu Stew Blog for Hikky Burr and tons of excellent funky 45 mixes.

I think that UNI thought Bill's effort here was a little strange, but that's where Bill's head was at, and for his next record, Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band, he continued in the abstract direction. We get back to our story here, because Stu Gardner, as Stoobie, produced and played on this record and the next Bunions record. Both of which are incredibly rare slabs of jazz funk, mainly written by Cosby. This one was reissued by Dusty Groove in 2008:

The first Badfoot Brown record features the tune Martin's Funeral, a fifteen minute instrumental. The liner notes contain Cosby's essay talking about his feelings surrounding the funeral of Martin Luther King, jr. and are worth the admission price of the CD..If you are pressed for time check out the edited version here..


Martins Funeral (edit)

Sidetrack 2
It's cool to see how deep A Tribe Called Quest digs in the crates. Here's their flip of Martin's Funeral..
A Tribe Called Quest-We Can Get Down

If you have the time, I'd recommend listening to the whole track,too. It is pretty damn cool, even without the back story.
Martin's Funeral (full 15 minute + version)


Stu Sings For Badfoot Brown
As popular as Mr. Cosby was, I guess the folks at UNI were a bit put off by a 2 song instrumental LP, so Badfoot and The Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching band were dropped. Withough missing a beat, Sussex Records picked up the next installment. Stu Gardner stepped up to the mike this time, on the "hit" single, Mouth of The Fish..only 4+ minutes..Radio ready, I'm not sure, but a Rare Funk gem nonetheless.

Mouth of the Fish

My trail goes cold on Stu after the second BBBBMFB record until 1974, when Stu shows up with an album for the financially teetering Stax empire. Volt 9503, Stu Gardner and The Sanctified Sounds, has less info on it than just about any of the records here and I can't find a pic of the cover, but there is this bumpin' little number (Devil In A Man), that shows up on a Stax comp or 2 (not on the 10 CD box set from the era though..shame on them).
(This is one of the records I got from the original post..thanks to Lafayette at Four Brothers Weekly. The record has been reissued by P-Vine in Japan. It's also got Stu on the board at All Music Guide, where it is called a solid if unspectacular effort by a journeyman artist..I respectfully disagree).
Devil In A Man

Sister Matilda

Funky Neighborhood



















After my original post, I also discovered another item that Stu was involved in for Stax. In the comments of the original Stu post, Phil/DJ Inna Soul from across the pond in the UK dug out a session where Stu played keys and got some songwriting credits.  Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton's 1973 The Master  LP also has  some other backing musicians you might recognize as the core of Little Feat.


Bass - Kenny Gradney
Congas - Sam Clayton , Simon Nava
Drums - Chico Hamilton
Engineer - Larry Hirsch
Guitar - Paul Barrere
Guitar [Slide] - Lowell George
Organ - Stu Gardner
Piano - Bill Payne

Lowell George had a few choice comments about the gig..
"It was very fast. It was all recorded in three days and they were all jams. We got payed less for that work than any other. I mean Stax Records is notorious for not paying, and they didn't. Then they resold the product to an advertising agency and they made a Porsche commercial out of it. And nobody got a penny for it. We even wrote the tunes and nobody got any publishing money. What a disaster." (Lowell in Oz)

I don't know if it's a he-said she said thing about who got paid, but Stax was in pretty rough shape around that time. Definitely a record of interest...
Fancy

Feels Good

Stu


Why is Stu Smiling? The 70's were pretty good to him, I'd say. He went on to do a lot of LA session work, reunited with Cosby for an '83 album from the stage film, Himself, was the Music Director for The Cosby Show (Huxtable version), composed the themes for A Different World, Living Single, and Little Bill, and started the band NGFOOT (Nine Guys from out of town), who have released albums (in a jazz vein) as recently as 2006. He is also a music educator and runs a foundation that offers scholarships to inner city youth.

Check out any of Stu's stuff..you don't have to look to hard to find the joy that comes from a life of making music. If anyone can contribute any other info on Stu, I'd be glad to see/hear it. Thanks to all the blogs and the Motown boxes, for the info. It's been fun boogeying with Stu.
Stu at CD Baby
Volt Records Discography
Revue Records Discography

Additional Note:In the post I posited that Stu might be the only artist who recorded for Stax and Motown, but since then I found another (and she's good,too):Mabel John