7

160: Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Posted by jeff on Aug 16, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Last week I talked about Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ from a very personal angle. But the song just wouldn’t leave me alone (yes, it’s infectious as the bubonic plague), so I did some snooping, and discovered a few things.

One is that Smokey really does have an uncommonly beautiful voice. I knew that was true, but somehow I always wind up absorbed by the gestalt of his recordings, not him as a vocalist per se.

Another is that he’s abused ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ horribly in a slew of embarrassing glam celeb duets that I very strongly recommend you not listen to: with Lucy Lawless (lawless indeed, there really should be a law against such demeaning appearances); with Ashanti (her plastic singing oudone by her affected hand gestures and ludicrous slinky walk); with Darryl Hall (all forced joviality, carrot-up-the-ass smiles); and even with Linda Ronstadt (whose schlocky 1978 cover of the song made us swoon for years. But neither she nor her treatment have worn well – here her floozy appearance is rivaled in bad judgment only by the stage set, with both Smokey and Linda concentrating more on avoiding tripping and stepping on each other’s toes than on singing the song).

But the discovery that’s been haunting me for days is this one, a spontaneous, honest homeboy and girl moment.  Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) Smokey (b. 1940) grew up in the same Detroit ‘hood, knew each other since forever. Here she’s the featured guest on a TV show called Soul Train, and Smokey’s a guest of the guest. Watch the banter, the comfort and immense mutual admiration. Watch the emcee challenge Aretha live on camera to come up with a Smokey song. Look at the total focus with which she engages the task, bestowing on it both gravitas and the most serious of fun.

Listen to these two remarkable voices, velvet and steel. A magical meeting in a magical song.  It’s not chemistry, it’s alchemy. Their emotion is palpable. As has been mine for these several days now. So will yours.

No matter that they botch the harmony at the end of the second verse. No matter that they omit the third verse entirely. At the beginning of the second verse (3’00” in the clip), Smokey takes the solo in the most transcendent, celestial voice produced by an earthbound human; then Aretha graces it with her blue note ‘mmm-hmm’, and it’s as miraculous as the rising of the sun.

Unrehearsed, glitzless. Watch it and say a little prayer of thanks for being present at the creation.

 

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088: Lizz Wright, ‘Old Man’

 
11

121: George Harrison, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (Acoustic Demo)

Posted by jeff on Jul 26, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

Beatle of Spirit and Flesh

George Harrison died ten years ago this week [written in 2011]. The event could slip by unnoticed, in contrast to the invariably gut-wrenching anniversaries of John Lennon’s death. Paul Simon wrote a beautiful song about John’s death, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’, (SoTW 078), but no one writes any songs about George.

John was the towering figure. He was the domineering 17-year old leader of the group  when Paul convinced him to begrudgingly allow 14-year old George to sit in with The Quarrymen. In the 1996 video documentary “The Beatles Anthology”, George was asked about his relationship with John (who had died 16 years earlier). “Well, he was John, you know. He was three years older than me. [Long, thoughtful pause.] He still is.”  A 56-year old Beatle candidly showing that the acute inferiority he felt as an adolescent hadn’t been dulled a whit by a lifetime of achieving more than most humans can even dream of.

Tip of the Iceberg Beatle

Read more…

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10

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

Posted by jeff on Jul 12, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

As you can see by the number, this is one of the first Songs of The Week I ever wrote, way back when it was sent by email to a small list of unsuspecting friends.

In recent years, I’ve had the wonderful fortune to be able to realize a couple of musical fantasies. There’s another one in the oven.
If you make it to the last paragraph here, you’ll see the fantasy.

I hope within the next couple of weeks to share with you the first fruits of my Brian Wilson/pre-Pet Sounds/a cappella fantasy/obsession–the first seeds of which were planted 53 years ago, the format exactly what I described 10 years ago. Stay tuned.

The Beach Boys — ‘Kiss Me, Baby’

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get the Beach Boys and those who don’t. By ‘The Beach Boys’, I don’t mean Al Jardine and Mike Love and ‘Surfin’ Safari’ or ‘Be True to Your School’; I mean of course Brian Wilson, and the stunning music that he created before his mind went mush.

It’s hard to sell the Beach Boys, even to people with good taste–there are lots of legitimate reasons to dismiss them: years of silly, pandering music (throughout their career); whiny, white-bread voices; the stupidest lyrics this side of Nashville.

But three gazillion fans can’t be wrong, right? And tBB had a string of hits from 1962 to 1966 (and onwards) rivaled among American pop groups only by the Four Seasons and the Motown stable. Then in 1966, right on the heels of their tenth straight hit LP, “The Beach Boys Party! (Live)”–came their first commercial flop. It was called “Pet Sounds”.

Go find a rock critic who doesn’t rank it in the top five greatest rock albums. But what do rock critics know? Paul McCartney said he and John were so blown away by it that “Sgt Pepper” was made as a conscious attempt to go “Pet Sounds” one better.

Brian Wilson (my transcription from a taped interview): After the Beales her Pessounds, they wand make a greyr album, so they id Sharzhin Peppersh Lowly Harsh Cluband. And it was a very, very, very great album. Right up there with Pet Sounds, And it was, like, really good. Well, that was obviously well into mush-hood. I belong to the camp that believes that “Sgt Pepper” was ‘overproduced and underwritten’, whereas “Pet Sounds” is one of the most beautiful works of any genre or medium I know. Books and movies and podcasts and probably macramé patterns have been made in tribute to “The Making Of”. So I’ll let you explore that territory on your own.

What I’m offering up this week is a cut from “Beach Boys Today!”, an album that riveted me back in 1965 when it was released, over a year before “Pet Sounds”. Side One contains 4 hit singles (enough to ensure the commercial success of the album): the dumb-out ‘Do You Wanna Dance’, the brilliant pap ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and ‘Help Me, Rhonda’, and the audacious ‘When I Grow Up’. But there are another seven songs in which Brian was creating music on an entirely new level of complexity, sophistication—and beauty. I feel a bit uncomfortable touting cuts with titles like ‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ (the last including the lyric ‘When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside, but it’d be another story if she looked at the guys’). But listen to them. And to the masterpiece of the album, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’. And to this week’s song, ‘Kiss Me, Baby’.

The song intrigued me in 1965, fascinated me for decades afterwards, and continues to haunt me today.

Try, please, I urge you, to filter out the cloying obstacles. I promise you, there are treasures within: unspeakably beautiful, angular, floating melody lines, an instrumental palette of colors and shades that offer deep, wondrous pleasures, and a symphonic tapestry of six or eight simultaneous musical lines bobbing and interweaving, stunning harmonies within the vocals, all of them playing off and with each other.

Take 9 (from the Unsurpassed Masters)

Vocal overdub 1 (from the Unsurpassed Masters)

Vocal overdub 2 (from the Unsurpassed Masters)

Several weeks ago I discovered the 58-CD series “The Beach Boys’ Unsurpassed Masters”. Yes, 58 CDs of Brian Wilson in the studio, rehearsing his music, hits and obscurities, layer after layer, first the instrumental track (with studio musicians–TBB might be his brothers and friends, but he wasn’t going to let anyone mess with his music), and only then the vocals (which The Boys did do). Here’s the voices:

Listening to him work in the studio, for me, is akin to watching a video of Michelangelo sketching out and then filling in the Sistine Chapel. The greatest thrill is being able to hear the threads. “Today!” is much influenced by Phil Spector. One big monaural glob of sound, impenetrable, inscrutable and hypnotic. There are those of us who spent many hours scrunching our ears to the hi-fi speaker trying to peek inside, to hear what was going on in there. No way. A wall of sound.

They say Brian is deaf in one ear, which is why he insisted mixing many of his masterpieces in monophonic, so that he could hear the precise sound palette that was being presented to the listener. But apparently in recent years he’s figured out (through the fog of sticky goo that remains of what was once his brain) that there’s gold in them thar archives. He’s allowed himself to be taken back into the studio, and remixed “Pet Sounds” in a beautiful, clear stereo.

Hearing the Unsurpassed Masters of “Kiss Me Baby” was a Rosetta Stone experience for me. Decades of gook removed. You can actually hear that counterpoint line being played by a bass clarinet and ukulele in unison. That’s a real example, I promise you. It’s a miracle dissected:
If I ever win a lottery, I’m going to try to commission the Danish jazz choir Vocal Line to record this song a cappella. I’ve already tried to convince both their director and assistant director to do so, succeeding only in convincing them that I have an acute obsessive disorder. Well, they may be right about that. But that’s another story. And I think this cut really is uncommonly beautiful.

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7

234: Carole King, ‘Up On the Roof’ (Live, 1971)

Posted by jeff on Jul 5, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Today we’re going to tell a tale of a song’s and its composer’s coming of age, their passage into (Wo)manhood, their bat mitzvahs. The song was only six years old when it started, and the whole process took a few years. But as music was the soundtrack of our lives, the song’s transmogrification reflected, colored, perhaps even nudged us along the path from adolescence to maturity (well, at least to majority. We’re still working on the grownup part).

1962-67

p02cfcgzThe story of how Jewish kids ground out hits for black artists in the Brill Building in the early 1960s is fascinating in and of itself. We’ve written about Doc Pomus, Leiber and Stoller, Bacharach and David, Phil Spector, and of course Gerry Goffin and Carole King, but the list also includes luminaries such as Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Greenwich and Barry, Mann and Weil, MOTs all.

Of all the songs Gerry Goffin penned lyrics to, his favorite was ‘Up On the Roof’ – an AM version of West Side Story (‘Tonight’ on the fire escape, exactly one year earlier – add a bass, a drum and a vibraphone, and they’re twins), an urban vision of transcendence that you could hear on your transistor and dance to at the sock hop. When Mrs Goffin (Carole King) wrote the melody, she was twenty years old, in the eighth month of pregnancy with the couple’s second child. It was recorded by The Drifters (with Rudy Lewis singing lead) in late 1962, and hit #5 on the charts.

2012-10-09-50005551-thumbBaby boomers are usually defined as those born after 1946. But the great preponderance of the leading musicians were a step older: Lennon (1940), Dylan and Simon (1941), Carol King, McCartney and Brian Wilson (1942), Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (1943). James Taylor (1948) and Laura Nyro (1947) were exceptions. It makes sense. Who’s an 18-year old going to turn to for advice? At 18, a 25-year old is a wizened sage.

So Carole is this 20-year old kid knocking out babies and AM hits one after the other, both in collaboration with Gerry Goffin.  In the Brill Building office she literally would play the piano with one hand while holding a baby in the other. The songs (up to 1967) – ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, ‘The Loco-Motion’, ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ (all #1 hits!) – great as they were in their own terms, were commercial pap. Even ‘Up On the Roof’ was a fairytale, as gritty and realistic as West Side Story itself, a sanitized and romanticized version of the New York streets.

Carole-King-4Here’s the demo Carole and Gerry cut for The Drifters, with Gerry introducing the song. And here’s an early video of the Drifters singing ‘Up On the Roof’ up on the roof.

If Gerry Goffin ever went up on the roof of the Brill Building, it wasn’t to excape all that rat race noise down in the street. (For that he drove out to his lovely tract ranch house in West Orange, New Jersey). If Gerry went up on the roof, it was to fool around with the Cookies’ (‘Chains’) singer Jeanie McRea, for whom he and Mrs Goffin wrote ‘I’m Into Something Good’ (although it seems that Gerry was the one who was into something good), in return for which Jeanie gave Gerry a baby girl.

Carole knew about the baby, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Gerry getting hallucogenicied and violent and utterly detached from West Orange reality.

Early 1967

CaroleKingCarole started hanging out with a young band she and Gerry had signed, the Myddle Class, which included drummer Joel O’Brien, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and bassist Charlie Larkey (b. 1947!). Carole was thrilled when the kids asked her to sit in on keyboards, and soon began a relationship with Larkey. The Myddle Class flopped in the Village clubs they played (outclassed by Al Kooper’s Blues Project, not to mention Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful—the first American rock groups), as did their group The Flying Machine (led by Danny’s best friend, James Taylor).

Even as the fairytale world of West Orange was crumbling, Carole and the in-and-out-of-hospital Gerry kept stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song, culminating in the harbinger of the times that were a-changing, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman’ for Aretha.

1967-68

AR-151019403But the center could not hold. Carole felt threatened by Goffin and split for The Coast, Laurel Canyon, home of the burgeoning LA music scene. Her neighbors included The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, young Jackson Browne and many other future stars. As a single mother (long before it existed as a status) and legendary songwriter, she was the Earth Mother of the scene.

In late 1968 Carole formed a band in LA with Larkey and Kootch, The City. The album (“Now That Everything’s Been Said”) was a respectable effort, but flopped. It included ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’, later a hit for The Byrds via Easy Rider.

At the same time, James Taylor was in London, recording his own flop, his first album (an unrecognized masterpiece, one of my Desert Island picks) for The Beatles’ Apple label.

1969-70

New-2Back in LA in December 1969, James recorded the album that more than any other defined the new acoustic rock sound (and much of the pained, introspective zeitgeist) of the singer-songwriter era, “Sweet Baby James”, with Kootch on guitar and Carole on piano.

In March-April 1970, Carole cut her first solo album, “Writer”, with Larkey, Kootch, and with James on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Goffin had been hanging around, to no avail romantically, but co-wrote and mixed the album. Who am I to judge? The new material included ‘Going Back’, another hit for The Byrds. For the closing cut on the album, Carole chose one of her early hits, ‘Up On the Roof’.

The song’s inclusion is sort of the point of this whole ramble. It wasn’t a gimmick to capitalize on her cred as ‘the gal who wrote’. It was a bold gesture: “That previous incarnation? That also was me.” I’ve known a lot of people who’ve shed identities, designed for themselves new ones. I myself did it in a major way, right back in the days we’re visiting here. I suppose in one way or another, most people change personae over the years to one degree or another. I’m no psychologist, but I’m guessing it’s always healthier if one can incorporate his former selves into the life he’s living. We all know people who ignore/hide/deny former incarnations. It’s inherently embarrassing.

Carole-KingCarole, with her unique biography straddling two coasts, two eras, two realities, embraced her former self. And that proud acknowledgement, that ‘this is me, and that was me, too’ is to be admired. Of course, it helps that that other self was the author of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, the soundtrack to about 50 million backseat deflorations; and not John Lennon’s 18-month lost weekend.

Carole’s ‘Up On the Roof’ from “Writer”, although unfortunately burdened down by strings, is an early template for an entire catalog of hits, the piano/acoustic guitar-based, mellow palette of James’ ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (January, 1971), ‘Handy Man’ (1977), and ‘Up On the Roof’(1979, seriously blighted by unka-BOOM! drums in the last verse).

1970-71

During 1970, as “Sweet Baby James” took off, Carole toured as the pianist of James’ band. He would give her a guest spot on his shows, to which the audience responded with booing—they wanted to hear their James singing ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Fire and Rain’, not some anonymous chick pianist, even if she had written some good oldies. She would sing ‘Up On the Roof’ and ‘Natural Woman’ above the boos.

1035x1400-85336848Here’s James’ beautiful solo version of ‘Up On the Roof’ from the Fillmore East in January, 1971. Returning from that tour to LA later that month, the band (Carole, James, Larkey, O’Brien, Kootch) went into the studio to record a batch of new songs that Carole had written by herself, working for the first time mostly without the help of lyricists Goffin or her new buddy Toni Stern. She called the album “Tapestry”.

The album also included the most vulnerable, powerless expression of a girl’s dependence on a guy’s caprice, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, an ‘oldie’ in the most profound sense: it’s beautiful, it’s full of nostalgic meaning for the me who once was, but its reality is in the past. ‘Natural Woman’, although written back in NY, belonged more to the new LA Carole. It became, justifiably, the anthem of the new womanhood—just as Carole’s life was a harbinger of the feminist revolution that was yet to change the world as we know it.

1971, Jo Mama Tour

1971, Jo Mama Tour

The new songs on the album – ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, ‘So Far Away’, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ harnessed Carole’s masterful (mistressful?) pop-hit chops to the new womanhood (and concomitant malehood) she and her generation were creating. “Tapestry” justly earned its place as a seminal cultural landmark, as the soundtrack of its time.

In April, 1971, the still almost unknown Carole recorded seven songs for the BBC. She begins with a fully confident ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ and a heartfelt, definitive ‘Natural Woman.’ But her introduction to ‘So Far Away’ shows just how much she still saw herself as second fiddle to James Taylor. It’s the ‘Will You Still Love Me’ Carole speaking. Apparently for all her independence, Carole was serially subservient emotionally to the men in her life (but that’s a wholly other kettle of fish).

You gotta remember – till Carole (and Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro) came along, male artists held primacy over women. Those three, each in her own way, created the persona of the new woman in music.

How strange it is to hear no audience response to the opening chords of the still-unknown ‘It’s Too Late’ (with James, Larkey and Khqdefaultootch). A fine, fun ‘Smackwater Jack’ shows just how much she’s the master – mistress? Why is the master by definition above, the mistress below? – well, she owns the pop song idiom.

She gives us a fine, heartfelt ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, then ends with her definitive treatment of ‘Up On the Roof’. Her singing and her piano are confident, in control, fully mature as a performer and as a creative voice, absolutely ready for and deserving of donning the mantle of spokessongstress of her generation. Funny (for me, as a guy) that both Joni and Carole were role models for the New Woman, while still slavishly in need of a man’s approval.

I guess you can take the girl out of the ‘50s more quickly than you can take the ‘50s out of the girl.

I an upcoming SoTW, via her early live recordings of ‘Up On the Roof’, we’re going to return to one of our favorite themes – just how major an artist Laura Nyro was.

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face (Up on the roof)
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space (Up on the roof)

On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there, the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (Up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowds
And all that rat race noise down in the street (Up on the roof)

On the roof’s the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof (Up on the roof)

At night, the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me
I keep-a tellin’ you

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I found a paradise that’s trouble-proof (Up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two up on the roof (Up on the roof)

Up on the roof (Up on the roof)
Oh, come on, baby (Up on the roof)
Oh, come on, honey (Up on the roof)
Everything is all right (Up on the roof)

 

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117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’

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