169: The Mills Brothers, ‘Jungle Fever’

Posted by jeff on Jun 13, 2019 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Mills Brothers – Jungle Fever
The Mills Brothers – Sleepy Head
The Mills Brothers – Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet
The Mills Brothers – Tiger Rag
The Mills Brothers – St. Louis Blues
The Mills Brothers – Rocking Chair

Four Boys and a Guitar

Ever here of Piqua, Ohio? It’s 25 miles north of Dayton, The name comes from the Shawnee “Othath-He-Waugh-Pe-Qua”, roughly translated as “He has risen from the ashes!” In 1749 it was called Fort Pickawillany, and by 1800 Upper and Lower Piqua merged into—you guessed it, Piqua. In 1833, John Randolph passed away and freed his slaves. Rossville, which he founded, also joined the burgeoning metropolis. By 1910 it had a population of 13,388, including John and Eathel Mills. John owned a barber shop on Public Square, so he and Eathel appropriately formed a barbershop quartet.

Four Boys and their Big Momma

Their four boys would sing and play kazoo for passersby (we’re guessing there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in 1925 Piqua). They entered an amateur contest at Piqua’s Mays Opera House (a movie theater in reality), John Jr (b. 1910) on guitar, all four singing tight harmonies. But alas,  while on stage, Harry (b. 1913) discovered he had left his kazoo at the barber shop, so he cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. They won the contest, and began imitating popular orchestras from the radio. John sang tuba; Harry, trumpet; Herbert (b. 1912) second trumpet; and Donald (b. 1915) the trombone. By 1928, they had graduated to playing between Rin Tin Tin features at May’s Opera House. They got an audition at WLW Cincinnati, the biggest radio station in the Midwest, and became local stars. Duke Ellington heard them and arranged an audition at CBS radio, which William Paley heard over a loudspeaker. He walked downstairs and put them right on the air. Billed as Four Boys and a Guitar, they became the first African-Americans to have a network radio show. It was a giant hit. They even co-starred on The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour hosted by Rudy Vallee and were featured in several movies.

Go, Fleischmanns!

Their very first recording, ‘Tiger Rag’ (from The Big Broadcast), hit #1 in 1931 (remember, the boys were 21,19, 18 and 16 at the time), quickly followed by classics such as ‘St Louis Blues’, ‘Rocking Chair’, ‘I Heard’ and ‘How’m I Doin’, Hey, Hey’, Swing It, Sister, the charming ‘Sleepy Head’ and ‘Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet’. Printed on all their records of this period was the disclaimer “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.”

In 1934 they were invited to England to perform before the King (the first African-Americans to be so honored), but John Jr caught pneumonia there and died. The boys wanted to break up the band, but Eathel said John Jr would have wanted them to continue, so John Sr replaced him and they hired a guitarist from outside the family.

Mills Brothers Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever 1934

The Andrews Sisters may have been the most popular tight-harmony tight-family group of that era, but The Mills Brothers and The Boswell Sisters (see SoTW 105) were the real innovative artists. The Boswells were mistresses of technique, wonderful harmonies and oodles of humor, with gravity-defying shifts in tempo and key. The Mills Brothers, the epitome of good taste and paragons of class, could scat nose-to-nose with Louis and Ella, invented both voices imitating instruments and vocal contrabass. Their materials are still lovable, charming and disarming after all these years. They collaborated with the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (check out this trumpet duet!), Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby (here’s their giant hit ‘Dina’ from 1932, here they are with him in 1966). Bing calls them “the smoothest group of all time”, and Bing knows ‘smooth’.

Jungle Fever 1991

Their biggest hit was ‘Paper Doll’ in 1942, after which they stopped recording in the ‘Four Boys and a Guitar’ format in favor of more conventional accompaniment. The group was widely popular throughout the war years, and continued performing in the Dad and three sons format till 1957, when John Sr retired. They were still scoring numerous hits in the 1950s, even into the rock and roll era. They continue to appear today, including third generation Millses.

For our Song of The Week, we’ve picked a zinger which demonstrates all their vocal skills, ‘Jungle Fever’. Today the Urban Dictionary defines that as ‘when a non-black person is attracted sexually to black people’.  In 1991 both Spike Lee (in a film) and Stevie Wonder (an album) employed the concept. Must have been something in the air. Here’s Stevie’s cut (“She’s gone black guy crazy, he’s gone white girl hazy/They got jungle fever”).

Four Men and a Guitar

But in 1934, when miscegenation was a crime? What in heaven’s name could they have been talking about? Well, you use your imagination and I’ll use mine. Our mores have certainly evolved since then. As have our sense of the exotic, the mysterious and the sexually dangerous. But not, I think, our sense of class.

Jungle Fever

Ever see the Congo when it’s steaming in the night?
Ever see the jungle with the animals in fright?
Put me in the Congo in the jungle and I’m right.

Got that fever that jungle fever,
Oh, you know the reason that I long to go.
Dusky maiden, dark-haired siren, Congo sweetheart,
I’m comin’ back to you.
Wild-eyed woman, native dreamgirl, jungle fever
Is in my blood for you.

Ever hear a kettle drum pounding out a beat?
Ever fight the silence and the madness and the heat?
That’s the thrill I’m cravin’ and the music is so sweet.
Oh, the congos callin’ and I long to go.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)
051: The Ross Sisters, ‘Solid Potato Salad’
105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’


288: Accent, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ (Vocalmente 2018)

Posted by jeff on Jun 3, 2019 in A Cappella, Song Of the week

I wrote this blog post 10 months ago. All the excitement described below just begins to hint at the excitement and joy that I experienced at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, from which I’ve just returned. Same faces, same stories, but oh, so much much more. AAVF was a truly moving experience for me and for our growing cult of rabid practitioners of “modern a cappella” — virtuoso pop/jazz, voices only. 

Accent — ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ (live at Vocalmente)

Accent — ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ (virtual version)

Accent — ‘Keep the Faith’

Accent — ‘Into You’

Accent — ‘Ki Lo Ta’azov’ (live Vocalmente snippet)

Accent — ‘Ki Lo Ta’zaov’ (virtual version)

Accent — ‘Marrakesh Express’ (virtual)

I’ve just returned [written August 2018] from Vocalmente 2018, my seventh European a cappella festival in ten years. My vacation and musical-spiritual retreat of choice. We come together, we devotees and practitioners of forward-looking close harmony vocal music, in Fossano Italy or Aarhus Denmark or Västerås Sweden or London England to hear concerts, attend lectures, participate in workshops, sing some very cool music conducted by Peder Karlsson and Merel Martens, record with Bill Hare, drink beer, and socialize.

The afterparty socializing is of course the main attraction. There’s no distinction between the stars and the commonfolk, everyone hangs together, because that’s part of the ethos that defines our little cult–unaffected love of the music and each other. You meet someone who’s become an old friend over the past ten years. You meet someone you chatted with briefly a couple of times, have lunch and get close. You meet new people from exotic places like Paraguay or New Zealand or Portland.  You meet people, amateurs and professionals, who know your music from back home (in my case the rock choir Vocalocity) and whose music you have been following for years now (like the Finnish Rajaton or the Italian Cluster).

It’s a tribal gathering, members young and old drawn together by love for this thing called ‘modern a cappella’ or ‘contemporary a cappella’ or ‘rhythm choirs’ or whatever. In the five days since it ended, social media have been choked with participants’ overwhelming love, photos and videos, and post-partum depression. There was a whole world of palpable love generated there. So thanks to Erik Bosio and the whole team and warm, beautiful Fossano for a great, great job, and to Tobia Hug for starting the whole thing (and is now working on an upcoming new one).

So you’re sitting after the concert, drinking beer with some great Dane, and at the next table are sitting the six members of the rising start vocal group Accent, singing of summer in full-throated ease. Just for the fun of it.

Erik Bosio

Way back in 2011, some kids met while hanging around on the street corners of the YouTube channels of old vocal jazz groups. One was from the US, two from Canada, one from the UK, one from France, one from Sweden, all musicians, all freakishly good singers. These 20somethings shared a rare love for a special kind of old close harmony music. Here’s their version of how they met.

They checked each other out, found that they were kindred spirits separated only by distance. Being millenials, they knew how to do things on the interweb that elude or mystify the rest of us analog-bred humans–like forming a vocal group without bothering to meet physically. They started by making clips like “Get Away, Jordan”, a cover of the American gospel-jazz group Take 6; or ‘Too Close for Comfort’, in the style of The Hi-Lo’s and Singers Unlimited, American vocal jazz groups of the 1950s and 1960s respectively, both led by Gene Puerling.

Remember, they had never been in the same room. It’s a new world, Suzy Creamcheese.

Then in 2014 they were invited to a music festival in Sweden, where they met, rehearsed, and performed their first gig. If you think we live in a post-miracle world, just watch the clip. Their first gig.

Since then, their reputation has been growing. They continue to meet at gigs, rehearsing for a few days in hotel rooms each time, currently a couple of times a year.

Accent were at Vocalmente, performing on the final night of the festival. Stars, for the meantime within our community; soon, I assume, worldwide. Because they’re so good. And cool. And cute. And fun. And they sing like six gravity-defying supermen, precise as laser surgeons, enthusiastic as eleven year-olds on a roller coaster.

Old Friends

Friday night at the afterparty, I’m schmoozing with my Grammy-winning buddy Bill Hare, and they’re sitting at the next table singing. Accent, these guys we’ve all been watching for hours on YouTube, our jaws dragging on the floor, sitting at the next table, singing for fun. Then Saturday night at the afterparty, they just picked up mikes and started singing in the courtyard of the early XIVc castle for the fun of it. Because they can. For the pure joy of being young and ridiculously talented and good-looking and together with your buddies and making mind-bogglingly good music. This is how good they sounded and looked.

And this is how good their performance on stage was.

But just as much fun was watching them jumping around and whooping and hollering and leading a parade of dancing kids to the front of the stage where The Real Group are performing.

The Real Group — ‘Nature Boy’ (live Vocalmente snippet)

The Real Group — ‘Nature Boy’ (live studio recording)

The Real Group — ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby) (live Vocalocity snippet)

The Real Group — ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby) (live 2005)

The Real Group are a Swedish quintet who jumpstarted this community back in the mid-1980s. They are our heroes, as well as our friends. This is what they looked like back when; this is what they look like today.

So one night Accent is dancing (in the rain) with abandon at the feet of their role models, The Real Group. And the very next night, The Real Group is gazing from the audience at these young ‘uns on stage – perhaps not jumping in the air like 25-year olds (except for Peder Karlsson, of course), but gaping speechlessly like the rest of us.

Anders Edenroth, last of the original TRG members still singing with the group, said with pride that Accent had invited him to their hotel room for their rehearsal that afternoon, “a VIP perk”. Accent said with awe that their legendary hero had graced them with his presence at their rehearsal. The passing of the torch, generation touching generation, live and in person in Fossano, Italy.

I’m still floating from the experience. I know that all my a cappella buddies who were there are still floating as well, each back in his own home territory. But we’ll keep in contact through Facebook and YouTube till next time—the Aarhus (Denmark) A Cappella Vocal Festival, AAVF, May 2019, where many of us will meet up again, hug and sing and listen to remarkable new music. And again we will generate a whole lot of unadulterated love, and feel lucky to be part of this wonderful, unique community.

Here are some more postings on related topics (for extra credit):

228: Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini (Noa)/Gil Dor, Vocalocity — ‘Zeh Po, Zeh Mugan’

The Origins of The Real Group and Modern A Cappella — Interview with Peder Karlsson

208: Vocalocity, ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’

209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013


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292: My 10 Life-Changing Albums

Posted by jeff on May 24, 2019 in Other, Personal, Song Of the week

Today’s the last day of my Facebook Album Challenge, during which I chose 10 albums, 1 per day, *which made an impact* on me. “Post cover, no explanation,” said the mission statement.

For some of you, that might be a whee little jaunt down memory lane. For an obsessive-compulsive music nerd baby-boomer like myself, it’s torture.

First of all, define your terms. The challenge has been floating around for a while, and it’s been painful for me to watch you lay folks (i.e., normal people with a Real Life) abuse the concept of “Top 10 Albums” so crassly.

You talk about your ten “favorite” albums? That just drives me batty. What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Your ten most loved albums?

Your ten most esteemed albums?

Your ten most listened-to albums?

Your ten most impactful albums?

Those are such different questions.

So as is my wont, I distilled the question down to “most life-changing” for the challenge.
And being the rule-abiding nerd that I am, I made no comments on my postings.
Guess what? I’ve held it in too long. Here comes.

#1 “Meet the Beatles”

For the excitement.

Do I really need to explain that I don’t think this is The Beatles greatest achievement? Or can you figure out that as a 15-year old boy, just like those dumb girls on the screen were screaming outwardly, so I was screaming inside, even as I watched them poker-faced?

128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’

251: The Maysles Brothers, “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit”

229: The Beatles: ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ (“Rubber Soul” at 50)

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

252: The Beatles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’


#2 “Another Side of Bob Dylan”

For opening my eyes.

Eight months and a million light years after the aforementioned, it was Dylan’s third album, the first one that I met in real time. I remember my head exploding, trying to grasp Bob Dylan. Fifty-five years later, I’m still working on it.

248: Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’

190: Bob Dylan, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

201: Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’

204: Bob Dylan, ‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions)

164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue


#3 The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds”

For the unfathomable beauty.

I’ve been plumbing the depths of this album since it was released, and never grow tired of it, 52 years. Through the decades, over and over, I’ve listened to all 8 CDs of the bootlegged “Unsurpassed Beach Boys!” studio recordings, listening to how Brian built the tracks pulse by pulse, measure by measure, genius at every stroke. I’ve watched and rewatched all the Pet Sounds documentaries, and read all the books. I’ve listened through atomic earphones to every one of the dozen or so remastered versions, from duophonic to mono to stereo to whatever. That line in “Here Today” where the ukulele and the bass harmonica play in unison? I’ll let you know when I get tired of it.

230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

269: Brian Wilson, ‘Sandy’/’Sherri She Needs Me’/’She Says That She Needs Me’

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)


#4 Laura Nyro, “Eli & the 13th Confession”

For the holy spirit that filled her.

I fell in love with Laura the day I heard her, and will love her till the day I die.

This album has inspired me throughout my entire life. Still does.

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’

233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’

270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’

271: Laura Nyro, ‘Walk on By’ (Bootleg Collection)


#5 Bill Evans, “Live at the Village Vanguard”

For the aesthetic.

So passionate, so restrained.

So subtle, so intelligent, so refined. Rarely a week goes by without me listening to it.

060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’

244: Bill Evans/Miles Davis, ‘On Green Dolphin Street’

124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’

209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)


#6 “James Taylor” (the Apple album)

For being my friend in the darkest hours.

James’ first album, the obscurity before “Sweet Baby James”. An 18 year old from a patrician family with a heroin addiction and a stay in a loony bin already under his belt. Remember how overwhelming the world was when you were 18? This album is unadulterated existential pain. “Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling.”

205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

132: James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”


#7 The Swingle Singers, “Bach’s Greatest Hits”

For the doors it opened.

Their very first album. I bought it the day it hit arrived at Neumark’s in Swifton, captivated by the cover engraving. I was 14. It was my introduction to J.S. Bach, to vocal jazz, and to genre-busting. Still today the very sound of the album transports me to places long gone and places yet to be discovered.

139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

161, The Swingle Singers, ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor’


#8 “The Buddy Holly Story”

For the honesty. And for the cool.

I was only 10 the day the music died. When I was 16, my sophisticated cousin took me to a bohemian bar in Cocoanut Grove, where the singer, one ‘Duane Storey’, performed an acoustic ‘Peggy Sue’. That performance is a centerpiece in the novel I’m currently engrossed in writing, 54 years later. Not to mention that Garcia and Weir and Lesh let me sing with them because I was the only one who knew the words to ‘That’ll Be the Day’.

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

155: Buddy Holly, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’



#9 Lee Konitz, “Subconscious-Lee”

For proving that ice also burns.

He was brilliant at 17. He was brilliant at 50. And he is still brilliant today at 91. I own over a hundred Lee Konitz recordings. Every one of them contains the sound of surprise.

040: Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd’ (Live in Toronto 1952)

027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)

134: Lee Konitz, ‘Duende’


#10 Glen Gould, J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”

To JSB for bringing order to a chaotic world.

To GG for going all the way.

Anyone can play notes. Gould makes them come alive. He taught me about engagément – in theater, in life.

Bach? I can’t imagine the world without Bach.

005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)

077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9’)

113: J.S. Bach, ‘Prelude to Suite #2 for Unaccompanied Cello’ (Casals)



127: The Band, ‘Tears of Rage’ (“Music from Big Pink”)

Posted by jeff on May 16, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Last week, in SoTW 126, we presented Bob Dylan’s original performance of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes”. This week we’re presenting ‘Tears of Rage’ as it appears on The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink”.

The Band — ‘Tears of Rage’

L to R: Manuel, Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Danko ©Elliot Landy

In July, 1968, hippies were being beaten in Chicago, Black ghettos were on fire, RFK and MLK had been killed, Paris was under siege and Prague was invaded. “Battle lines being drawn.” Rock music was the vehicle for the younger generation to rail against parents, professors, police – louder and faster and flashier, more and more strident and abrasive and combative. Get high, get angy, get laid. Up against the wall, motherfucker.

Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” had provoked nothing more than a collective “Huh?” “Sgt Pepper” had deteriorated into Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf and The Doors and Cream .

The Band painted by Bob Dylan

Then Bob Dylan’s backing band – formerly The Hawks, now the non-name The Band – released their first album. The back cover pictured a pink house (hence the title “Music from Big Pink”), and inside was a photo of five guys who looked more like the James Brothers – the gang, not the band. Even worse, they included a picture of a whole tribe of horn-rimmed honkies, captioned ‘Next of Kin’.  This was in a day when everyone else was denying that they had biological parents. Didn’t these guys know anything about being cool?

But the front cover was a primitive painting of the group by The Dylan himself. Not only that, the album featured three songs by him, two of them collaborations with The Band (music for ‘Tears of Rage’ by Richard Manuel, for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ by Rick Danko, together with ‘I Shall Be Released’). This was at a time when Dylan no more collaborated with mortals than did The Almighty Him/Herself. So “Music from Big Pink” entered the marketplace as an authoritative word from on high, if not Dylan himself speaking, then at least his angels.

But the music? It was so strange. Nary a backbeat on the entire LP. Nothing you could dance to. No electricity. It all sounded as though it had grown up through the ground. The instruments sounded as though they had been picked off a stalk and hand-fashioned. The songs talked about family, faith, and rural life. Talk about ‘Huh?’!

Its impact was subtle but immediate. Eric Clapton heard the album and decided on the spot to break up Cream. It would take us all years to absorb the music from Big Pink – the polar opposite of everything we were experiencing at the time: ensemble music, acoustic, organic. Roots music in a wholly new style.  Five individuals performing as a single unit in a way common to jazz and chamber music, unknown in rock. Listening rather than shouting.

©Elliot Landy

The music created a new aural palette—a rhythm piano (Richard Manuel); a “fourth-dimensional” organ providing distinctive colorings and lead voices (Garth Hudson); a guitar (Robbie Robertson) pursuing a holistic sound; and a drum (Levon Helm) taking an equal creative role in the musical pastiche. Their vocals were a wonder – Levon usually taking the lead (‘The Weight’), the authentic drawling Southerner aside four Canadians; reedy Danko (‘This Wheel’s On Fire’), simultaneously vulnerable and raucous; and the miracle of Richard Manuel’s voice (‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’ in a harrowing falsetto, gut-wrenching ‘Lonesome Suzie’ – passionate, expressive, joyous, pained, his eventual suicide already foreshadowed). Producer John Simon also played a critical role in pulling it all together, playing horns with Garth, tweaking the marvelous sounds that are as much a feature of the album as the songs and the musicianship.

The Hawks 1961 ©Serge Daniloff

It is remarkable to think that this quantum shift didn’t have to occur; it was a product of Bob Dylan’s decision to pull off the fast lane.

The Hawks had been touring Canada and the South as a heavy, funky rock/rock&roll/country-tinged rhythm&blues band for five years when they were drafted to back Dylan as the band he used to electrify his sound. They were booed nightly. (I saw one of these performances—it was so raw and raunchy the rafters literally shook; Robbie’s guitar was deafening. I refrained from joining the booing only out of respect for Dylan.) Dylan crashed on his motorcycle, and the whole group retired to the Saugerties near Woodstock, where they took their first break from the road in years. They hung out, walked in the woods, and met daily in the basement to play the old music they loved and recreate the sound and mindset of America.

©Elliot Landy

Robbie Robertson: “My guitar playing was like a premature ejaculation in the beginning. I was in my early twenties with Bob Dylan. Same thing, a hundred guitar solos a night. I’d done this to death…I wanted to discover the sound of the band. ..I’m not gonna play a guitar solo on the whole record. I’m only going to play riffs, Curtis Mayfield kind of riffs. I wanted the drums to have their own character. I wanted the piano not to sound like a big Yamaha grand. I wanted it to sound like an upright piano. I wanted these pictures in your mind. I wanted this flavor. I didn’t want screaming vocals. I wanted sensitive vocals where you can hear the breathing and the voices coming in. This whole thing of discovering the voices…This is emotional and this is story telling. You can see this mythology. This is the record that I wanted to make. “

©Elliot Landy

Drummer Levon Helm, from his autobiography “This Wheel’s on Fire”: “’Tears of Rage’” opened the album with a slow song, which was just another way of our rebelling against the rebellion. We were deliberately going against the grain. Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to. At the zenith of the psychedelic music era, with its flaming guitars and endless solos and elongated jams, we weren’t about to make that kind of album. Bob Dylan helped Richard with this number about a parent’s heartbreak, and Richard sang one of the best performances of his life. It had those trademark horns and organ and the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time.  [JM: Cf the deadened tom-tom sound Ringo invented on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.] You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear the sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way. (John Simon heard this and started calling me a bayou folk drummer, but not to my face.)”

What is most remarkable to me today about “Music from Big Pink” in general and ‘Tears of Rage’ specifically is the way they assemble the music through mutually interdependent lines. Just like jazz at its best. Listen to the original version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from “The Basement Tapes.” Even wooden-fingered Jeff can play that guitar part, strum-two-three-four, strum-two three-four. Now listen to the opening of The Band’s ‘Tears of Rage’, the very opening of this miraculous album. What’s going on? Where is the rhythmic center? We don’t hit an identifiable marker until about the eighth bar—it’s just intertwining and floating, but all in tandem, a pas de cinq ballet of sounds. So much of what the Band invents can be found right here in this instrumental introduction—the ‘Curtis Mayfield’ guitar riff, the lead voice, but so much an integral part of the whole; the almost inaudible but crucial floating sustained organ; the interplay of the bass and the drum and the rhythm piano, together providing an implicit rhythm created as much by the gaps as by the beats, as intimate as lovers, as self-effacing as monks, as synchronized as guys who have been travelling together for six years.

“Music from Big Pink” is too weighty a work to try to deal with it in its entirety. I’m struggling to give just the first cut a fair shake. I guess I’ll just have to (get to!) revisit some of the other wondrous songs another time. Last week I tried to give an honest reading of the song as its author performed it. But that, for all the beauty and wisdom of the song, is clearly a sketch of a rendition, still in its adolescence. Here, in The Band’s treatment, it finds its full, organic expression.  Manual’s voice together with Garth’s organ and the tambourine and – oh, there’s just no end to the richness of this tapestry. It can’t be plumbed, it can’t be dissected or measured. Just sit back and let it rend your heart.


For further edification:

The wonderful Norwegian Web site chronicling all things Band.

Al Kooper’s 1968 review in Rolling Stone magazine of the Album of the Year, “Music from Big Pink”

Alternate version of ‘Tears of Rage’ from the “Big Pink” sessions

An unsuccessful ‘Tears of Rage’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

A very successful ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Manuel and Danko from the LP “Whispering Pines” (1985)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)


A bizarre personal story of mine regarding the house, Big Pink

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’


016: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

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