022: Roberta Sá and Chico Buarque, ‘Mambembe’

Posted by jeff on Jul 1, 2015 in Brazilian, Song Of the week, Vocalists

I’ve had a good life. YouTube Preview Image

I’ve thought a lot about the facts that I was awarded life only because my grandparents had the prescience to leave Belarus; and that I was born into the wealthiest country in history at a time of freedom and therefore presented with unlimited possibilities of all sorts; and that I was born into a people with a very special history, with concomitant obligations and baggage; that I had the luxury of choosing the country I wanted to live in and the good fortune to live a life I chose, rather than following one I was born into; and that I was born at a time that my coming-of-age coincided with the bloom of the Beatles’ and Dylan’s recording careers. I may have missed the existence of the walkman during my formative years, but all in all I think I was well-born.

But if I were able to do it all over again, I think I might have chosen to be born in Brazil, sometime after the advent of bossa nova. Their music is so often so magical that it makes everything non-Latin sound plodding and pedestrian. My friend Miki did have that good fortune. He can do just a little clapping shuffle with his hands, and it sounds like dancing. He sent me an email this week with the subject “You will fall in love” and the link to our SoTW

He, of course, was right.

All too frequently I discover music through obsessive detective work — someone I respect makes a passing reference to an artist I’m not familiar with. I start following clue after clue, fall into a binge of three days or four weeks poring through the entire discography, acquiring a dozen CDs, ignoring work, family, and reality listening to them, reading interviews transcribed from Croatian radio, the whole shebang.

But in this case, I did it right, just like a normal human. Well, almost. Miki sent me the link, and I watched it. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. You can figure out the ellipsis. And I did indeed fall in love with the girl, the song, the clip, the event filmed there. As has every person I’ve shown it to in the last week, as will I hope you as well.

So it was only after watching it 30 or 40 times that I took a break to research, document, dissemble, dissect and analyze the poor thing.

The girl, Roberta Sá, was dropped out of the 2002 ‘Brazilian Idol’ competition after 4 weeks, but she’s had a pretty good run of it since. Many of the highly respected icons of Brazilian music have recorded with her, including Chico Buarque in the clip here. He’s 64, creator of an extensive and highly respected discography, a master of lyrics who managed to stay in trouble with the Brazilian authorities for many years.
The song itself was quite a surprise to me. It’s a homeless gent, maintaining that he shouldn’t be pitied, he has the freedom of a gypsy:

On stage in the square, the circus, a park bench
Running in the dark, graffiti on the wall
You will know me–Mambembe, Gypsy

Beggar, rogue, nigger,
Good or bad mulambo, singing.
Runaway slave, a lunatic.
I make my festival

Poet, clown, pirate, pirate, Wandering Jew
Sleeping on the road, nothing, nothing in
And this world is all mine


Under the bridge, singing
Beneath the earth, singing
In the mouths of the people, singing

But padding the clip with facts just distances us from it. I may just as well stick to my local Israeli associations—Uri Mamillian accompanying Meir Ariel and (oxymoron follows) a meltingly sweet and smiling Yonit Levi.

But of course none of that is the point. The point is the magic in the clip. The magic floating guitar. The charm, the sweetness, the utterly captivating power of the smile. And most of all, of course, the nascent, vibrant electricity between the two singers.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Esperanza  Spalding and sex appeal in female singers. Well, this clip is a lot more articulate than I am. Sometimes, that’s what it’s all about. And it can be great.

Just for an experiment, listen to the music without watching the clip. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? I’ve listened to quite a lot of Roberta Sá’s recordings, and they’re respectable, but really nothing special. I keep thinking of Ruhama Raz, for those of you who know her, sweet and innocent and girl-next-door harmless. And I’ve listened to some of Chico Buarque’s stuff, and it’s too lyric-based for me to overcome the Portuguese barrier (as I can do with many other more universally musical Brazilian artists).

But the clip, my gosh. It’s so disarming and charming and intoxicating. Like Miki said, I fell in love. And enough words, go enjoy the absolutely entrancing flirtation between these two singers.

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217: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’

Posted by jeff on Jun 26, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

ae69a33960419cf9796bf37b692be13bAmy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (live, 2007)
Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (original, official video)

It’s not enochlophobia (fear of crowds) that I suffer from (hey, I was at Woodstock, and I’ve performed the priestly blessing at the Western Wall), but rather an allergy to That Which The Masses Adulate. Call it acute snobbery.

Why ‘suffer’? Because I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be cool, which means being hip, which means being au courant, which means listening to the music that in-the-know young folk are listening to. On the other, if everyone’s chasing it, I’m going in the other direction.

When the movie “Hard Day’s Night” was released, I wouldn’t go see it for the first month because the theater was full of screaming girls. I wanted to see and hear my Beatles. To hear all the overtones of the first chord. To chuckle knowingly to myself every time Paul said “Actually, we’re just good friends”, to nod sagaciously when George quips “You don’t see many of these nowadays, do you?” Those teenie twerpettes wouldn’t get the jokes, and I wasn’t going to strain to hear them over their grunts and squeaks and groans and moans. Quiet chuckle, that’s me. Still is. When McCartney or Simon comes to town to play the stadia, you’ll find me at home sipping tea and listening to their original recordings from 40 years ago. With headphones.

Foto-KOSBZJA4But there’s a catch here. “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong” was the title of his second collection of greatest hits (1959). If you think there’s no truth in that, check out Young Elvis. I think most people think of Elvis like this. I think of Elvis like this. It was a great piece of advertising, and the cover has become iconic, spawning imitations from Rod Stewart to Bon Jovi. We could discuss ad nauseum here the dialectic of popularity vs sincerity, as I did most nights in the dorm of my freshman year in college.

But more interesting is the fact that the RCA copywriters snatched the Elvis meme from Sophie Tucker. Who’s Sophie Tucker? Find that out yourself, Virginia, but in 1927 she had a hit as big as her bazooms with ‘Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’. And what’s a ‘meme’ you may ask (as I did)? It’s an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. As opposed to a snowclone, which is a “neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template, a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants (‘grey is the new black’)”.  I promise to report back to you on the difference between your meme and your snowclone. As soon as I figure it out.

Which brings us right to Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). She achieved stardom at the ripe young age of 20, recorded two albums, a slew of bonus tracks (gosh I long for the days of orderly discographies) and piles of live performance videos; and died at 27 from rampant indulgence in every addiction known to modern womankind. She was over-the-edge provocative from the git-go, but adulated. With/despite her filthy mouth, her retro beehive hairdo, her outlandish attire, she became a lifestyle model. The media coddled her. The half a billion grandchildren of the fifty million Elvis fans embraced her, even as they were booing her for being too drunk to finish her stage performance.

What made her so popular? Her mouth? Her hair? Her boobs? The screaming, teeming masses kept me away for ten years. But now that the noise has died down enough for me to give a listen, I can tell you why. It was her voice and her songs. Her very impressive and serious musicianship. Her very fine talent.

I won’t pretend to have mastered her extensive library of bootlegs and outtakes, and I’m sure I have absolutely nothing to add about Amy to those who followed her career in real-time. But not surprisingly, some of my old codger friends are latecomers and (now that the shouting has died down) impressed and interested. So these few observations are for them.

Her two albums are fine, polished, cheeky, fun. But for our Song of The Week we’re going with a live version of the title track of her second album, “Back to Black”, from the 2007 Glastonbury festival. And here’s the whole concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

ronnieWhat do we have here? Well, the opening riff is ripped from The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. (I had the privilege of seeing Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention perform this song in concert, but that’s something wholly other.)  The beehive hairdo is usually attributed to The Supremes’ darker colleagues The Ronettes. Here’s their ‘Be My Baby’. The influence on Amy is pretty obvious. What might be less so are the facts that a) Brian Wilson called this the greatest pop record ever made (Phil Spector, of course); b) young Cher sang backup on the original recording; c) lead singer Ronnie Bennett became Mrs Spector; The Rolling Stones opened for Les Ronettes on their the latter’s 1964 UK tour; and the girls opened for The Beatles on their 1966 US tour.

But by Amy’s time, the sultry chick singer was backed not by two chicklettes, but by two very well-endowed, very suggestive male singer/dancers. One wonders what all was written into their contract. She’s backed as well by a very fine, versatile band, playing her whole amalgam of styles, drawing generously from Motown, blue-eyed soul, and of course Dinah Washington.

Amy’s debt to Dinah is great and openly acknowledged. Here’s Amy explaining just how great the influence is, not only in vocal styling, but in style, in attitude, in the way they both perceive and describe the world. But Amy is no cheap imitatress. Check out the lovely segue from the Motown Funk Brothers beat to the lovely jazz groove at 2:30. We’re talking giants on the shoulders of giants.

amy-winehouseAmy’s relatively small repertoire includes lots of ‘covers’. But they’re neither derivative nor fillers. They’re homages to fine, pre-worn materials that she makes her own. Check out her ‘Our Day Will Come’ and Ruby and the Romantics’ original; or her ragged, reggaed ‘Cupid’ version of Sam Cooke’s original; or her ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, cf The Shirelles’ original (written of course by Carole King, her first #1 hit, subject of SoTW 182); her version of the Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ (Phil Spector’s very first hit); or her lovely, respectful treatment of James Moody’s jazz classic ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ (here’s King Pleasure’s original version; it’s been covered by such luminaries as Van Morrison and Kurt Elling).

Amy’s great originals (‘Tears Dry on Their Own’, ‘You Know I’m No Good’, ‘Rehab’, ‘Stronger Than Me’) draw upon numerous rich traditions. But make no mistake. Covers, self-penned, Amy Winehouse was an original.

What lessons can we draw from Amy’s legacy? Yes, her membership in the 27 club (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain) is indeed tragic. And her self-destructive exhibitionism is pornographically riveting. But the music is real, and solid, and lasting. The generation Xers and Yers would be enriched by listening to her forebears. And us baby boomers, albeit belatedly, should avail ourselves of this fine, very serious and very talented vocal artist.

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009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

Posted by jeff on Jun 17, 2015 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

This week we’re going to look at the tragically short career of one of the finest vocal stylists in the history of popular music.

Barbra Streisand was born in 1942, and earned a reputation as a “crazy” in high school, where she was friends with Neil Diamond and Bobby Fischer. At 18 she was already singing in night clubs, at 19 she was appearing regularly as a curiosity on The Tonight Show, at 20 she landed a ‘small but star-making’ role in a Broadway musical. She had recorded two Top 10 albums for Columbia before her 21st birthday.

No one recognized it at the time, but she had contracted an artistically fatal disease.

She was born homely. Her mother told her she wasn’t pretty enough to be an entertainer, and urged her to learn typing. Her young persona confronted that image directly—joking about her very large nose, her Brooklyn demeanor, her awkward deportment, her horrifying empire-waist dresses.

At 22 she left her nightclub career for the starring role in a smash Broadway musical hit. She played the role of a talented loser, became a megastar, and turned herself into a loser of a talent. The Broadway show launched her to the peak of her profession, perhaps the most successful singer/actress in the past couple of generations. From that point on, it has been a long slide down the slippery slope of inflated ego and glitz posing as guts.

Yawn. If you loved Yentl, please close this immediately and go watch it. If you think ‘People’ is a moving song, press Escape real fast and go listen to it. In my very humble opinion, they’re mawkish, embarrassing pablum.

In Funny Girl, she this number, ‘I’m the Greatest Star’. A tour de force of kosher ham. It’s very funny–because it’s ironic. Because she presents herself as the ugly duckling ludicrously pretending to be A Star. But within a very short time, she started coming on with the décolletage and poils and filmed through a misty haze–it ain’t funny, girl.YouTube Preview Image

If you’re still here, I guess you’re with me in that persecuted minority who wish The Queen would put on some clothes, cover her bodice, and stop trying to convince us that she’s glamorous. She can consort with all the Ryan O’Neals and Robert Redfords in the world, and she’s still going to be that liddle Yiddle from Flatbush. But I’ll betcha there are very few among us here, the non-BS fans, the heretics, who have really given her a fair break as a serious artist.

With then-husband Elliot Gould

Gasp. He called her an artist???

Yup. Her first two albums, “The Barbra Streisand Album” and “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” are as unpretentious as their titles. They come from that 1962 loft down in the Village, when she was married to Elliot Gould. The singing is genuinely ballsy, overflowing with young and innocent love for the world, whether it’s newfound independence or the most purely broken heart a young girl could have. Her voice is the pure heady optimism of Kennedy-era optimism. The songs, many of them standards from the 1940s, are dead-on examples of the political and sexual awakening of the 1962 New Frontier – post-beatnik hip, cynical and funny, intense and emotionally committed. Her signature song was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, the theme song of FDR’s 1932 campaign, eventually the buoyant and optimistic theme song of the Democratic Party. Except that Babs gives it a somber treatment, at a deliberate tempo, with harrowing, gut-wrenching commitment.

We’ve always known she had the greatest chops this side of La Scala before they were sacrificed on the altar of auto-adulation. She can still flit in one breath from a Gorgeous George Gorilla Press to the butterfly caress of a brain surgeon. But in these two albums she’s funny and clever and impassioned, and, for me, utterly convincing. She moves me.

Then she became a star.

She performed two songs on The Ed Sullivan Show in December, 1962. One is a pretty fine ballad, ‘My Coloring Book’.

With then-president Jack Kennedy

But the song we’ve chosen for our Song of The Week is Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II’s standard ‘Lover, Come Back to Me.’ This recording was made two months before the release of her first album, a year before the second. It’s over the top, it’s extravagantly demonstrative, and I love it.

The structure is standard, AABABA, with the verse culminating in some variant of the name of the song. Listen to just that, the imperative: “Lover, come back to me”. She sings it four times. Follow how it grows from a polite request to an ardent plea to an unveiled threat to a cavewoman’s club over the poor guy’s noggin. And that grounch at the end, when she’s dragging him back into the home cave by his hair. This ain’t glitz. This is fine, inventive, honest vocal artistry. No worrying about at what angle the camera is going to catch her schnozz. Just her and that absentee lover.

She’s 20 years old when she sings this.

It seems the ugly duckling is a whole lot more interesting than the swan.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’


054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

Posted by jeff on Jun 11, 2015 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

A long-time colleague left our place of work recently, a young woman with some interest in ‘old’ music (from the twentieth century). She asked for a compilation CD as a going-away present. A compilation CD, as you may or may not know, is the primary form of expression of a certain breed of arrested development baby-boomers, post-baby-boomers, and neo-baby-boomers. I recently read a painfully perceptive portrayal of this particular form of autism in Nick Hornsby’s novel “High Fidelity”.

Anyway, I slapped together a whole pile of music I thought might appeal to this person, but I didn’t invest enough time, energy or thought in it to give it a really distinctive theme (the way you’re supposed to, for compilation CDs). So when I needed to label it I was really stuck, and a bit embarrassed, as it seemed to be a profound and fundamental transgression of some self-imposted, arbitrary, adolescent rule. I called it ‘Indefensible Mix’.

And do you know what song jumped out at her, from way back in the 1900s? A very lovely easy-listening cut by the British duo Everything But The Girl, ‘Love is Strange‘ (nice clip!). EBTG was Ben Watt (guitars, arrangements, backing vocals) and Tracey Thorn (unforgettable lead vocals). They got together in 1982, and took their name from a sign placed in the window of a local furniture shop, which claimed “for your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.” They’ve had a surprising and successful second career as mix artists (I choose to not fully grasp what that implies). But what appeals to me is their first career, which included a whole string of tasteful, stripped-down acoustic covers (and some originals), often with jazzy underpinnings. The long list of lovely hits includes Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It‘; a very successful version of one of the most-recorded songs I know from recent years, Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, and my very favorite, the EBTG original ‘Each and Every One‘.

But of course when the young lady focused on ‘Love Is Strange’, it sent me right back to the original version. Before Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Before Peaches & Herb. Before Don and Phil Everly. Before Lonnie Donegan. Even before Buddy Holly. Before all the movies and TV shows it has appeared in, including the silly ‘sexy’ cha-cha scene (supposedly spontaneous and improvised) in the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ and (so I read in Wikipedia) ‘Deep Throat’.

The inspiring original was a #1-hit wonder in 1957 by Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker and his guitar student Little Sylvia Vanderpool (later Robinson). The song features provocative verbal interplay between Mickey and Sylvia, a memorable guitar riff, a quasi-Latin beat, a catchy melodic line and an indelible harmony. They recorded a bunch of other R&B material, but nothing else stuck in our collective AM mind. Here’s a clip of their ‘Dearest’ (which Buddy Holly also recorded) with a bunch of really great photos. And here are the very forgettable ‘No Good Lover’ and ‘Oh Yeah! Uh Huh‘. But you will be pleased to learn, as I was, that Mickey had a great career as a very popular studio guitarist at the time. And Sylvia not only had a #3 hit sleaze soul hit in 1973 with ‘Pillow Talk’, as explicit for 1973 as ‘Love Is Strange’ was for 1957; but also in the 1980s the little lady became a producer for the Sugar Hill label and a major force in the emergence of rap music.

It’s interesting that many of the talented covering artists try to copy the seductive repartee from M&S, and none come close to achieving the raw, coy, playful tone of the original. That Sylvia Vanderpool must have been one heck of a, um, lady.

Love Is Strange’ it turns out was written by the great Bo Diddley, published under the name of his wife, Ethel Smith, but released only in 2007 as a bonus track on ‘I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958’. As much as I admire Mr Diddley, I’ve sure been enjoying listening to Mickey & Sylvia, to Everything But The Girl, and to all the other fine versions over the years. And as one of those compulsive compilationists, I think I’ll go on touting it for all the young ‘uns out there in whose ears it still seems to find pleasure, 50+ years on.


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