I had a jones for some Leon Russell yesterday, something that would get my blood going. I popped in his epic "Leon Live" (recorded in at the Long Beach Arena in 1972), which was originally released as a three-album set. The show opens with a 12-minute long medley that includes "I'll Take You There," Leiber & Stoller's "Idol With the Golden Head," a gospel tune titled "I Serve a Living Savior," and Bob Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn"--a typically eclectic Leon jam. The second song is a Russell original, "Shoot Out on the Plantation," which first appeared on his solo debut album. Toward the end of the live version, as Leon is pounding away on the piano, he suddenly breaks into the melody from "Holiday For Strings," the song that served as the theme for Red Skelton's TV show. Did I say Leon was eclectic? Anyway, as I was reading the liner notes, which included a discography, I was reminded of Russell's 1974 album, "Stop All That Jazz" (above).
And here's something I didn't know: the band that plays on most of that album includes Charles, Robert and Ronnie Wilson--brothers who would later be better known as The Gap Band ("Burn Rubber," "You Dropped a Bomb On Me.") Of course. The Wilson brothers, like Leon, were from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They even recorded their first album, "Magician's Holiday," for Russell's Shelter Records label.
"Stop All That Jazz" isn't really a jazz record. It includes an upbeat, country-ish version of "If I Were a Carpenter," with guitars by John Cale and Willie Nelson; Mose Allison's "Smashed," with a great trumpet part by Ronnie Wilson; an instrumental version of "Spanish Harlem" that sounds like a slowed-down mambo; a beautiful ballad titled "Time For Love," on which Leon plays all the instruments; and a spooky version of Dylan's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." The album ends with the only two cuts (both written by Russell) that are remotely jazzy: "Mona Lisa Please" and the title track, both of which have horn charts that sound like they're right out of the Duke Ellington songbook.
Aside from that inexplicable, borderline offensive album cover, "Stop All That Jazz" is a gem. And did I say Leon Russell was eclectic?
General Johnson is one of the great, under appreciated figures in soul/R&B from the '60s/'70s, perhaps because he was based in Virginia and not part of the Motown family in Detroit or the Stax scene in Memphis. Johnson was the lead singer and songwriter of Chairmen of the Board, which had a string of hits including the classics "Give Me Just a Little More Time" and "Pay to the Piper." But he also wrote or co-wrote songs that became hits for other artists, including "Patches" (Clarence Carter), "Want Ads" and "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" (Honey Cone), and "Bring the Boys Home" (Freda Payne). Another of his more obscure songs, the fantastic "Don't Walk Away," was recorded by Sweet Pea Atkinson on the only solo album released by the Was (Not Was) lead singer. (Best lyric: "Kick me, cuss me, slap me/Just please don't say we're done.") Give it up for the General, who turns 66 today.
*Johnson died today, 10/16/10, at the age of 67. Here's his version of "Don't Walk Away."
I've slept in the same bed as David Byrne. Lemme 'splain, Lucy. Several years ago, Theresa and I were visiting the artists Terry and Jo Harvey Allen at their Santa Fe home. As we headed to the guest house to turn in for the evening, Terry said: "Make sure you carve something onto the headboard"--a request they made of all their visitors. Sure enough, the wooden headboard was filled with initials, names and cryptic messages. As I carved our initials, I noticed this entry: "David + Adelle." The next morning I asked if "David" was David Halley--one of Terry's fellow Lubbock songwriters. "No," he said matter-of-factly, "David Byrne." Of course. They had collaborated on the soundtrack to Byrne's 1986 film, "True Stories"--just one of many collaborations Byrne has undertaken over the years. As much as I admire his work with Talking Heads, as well as his solo albums, I really love his collaborations. Just in the past few months I've downloaded these new or recent works:
--"I'm Losing Myself" w/the Brazilian Girls
--"Knotty Pine" w/the Dirty Projectors
--"Money" and "The People Tree" w/N.A.S.A.
--"Toe Jam" w/the BPA
--"Fall With Me" w/Paul van Dyk
And then there was his reunion album with Brian Eno: "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today." My favorite cut is the sweetly funky "Strange Overtones," which includes these lyrics:
This groove is out of fashion / These beats are 20 years old...
Even if that's true, that groove and those beats are suitably hip for my ears. David Byrne--singer, songwriter, author, visual artist, curator, blogger--is a prolific Renaissance man and one of my cultural heroes. And today is his 57th birthday. Mark the occasion by going to davidbyrne.com and buying the EP of four live songs from "Everything That Happens..." Proceeds benefit Amnesty International.
I didn't know Stephen Bruton but I knew of him through our mutual good friend, Alejandro Escovedo. Bruton, an acclaimed guitarist, songwriter and producer, died Saturday of complications from throat cancer at the age of 60. Bruton--who moved to Texas with his family when he was 2--was a go-to guy for a long list of artists including Kris Kristofferson (they co-wrote "Border Lord"), Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton and T-Bone Burnett. As a producer he worked on albums by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marcia Ball, and on Escovedo's 1996 release, "With These Hands" (which includes one of my favorite Alejandro rockers, "Crooked Frame," featuring Bruton's wicked wah-wah guitar). Bruton's own albums weren't big sellers, but they showcased his considerable talents and they often featured guest appearances by his notable friends. On "Right on Time," from 1995, my favorite cut is the soulful ballad "Waves Against the Sand," which boasts background vocals by Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens of Was (Not Was). The Austin music community has lost a good one.
Today is the 78th birthday of Willie Mays, in my book the greatest baseball player ever. I'm not sure how a kid growing up in South Texas became enamored of a San Francisco Giant. Maybe it was his style, which was what set him off from the mechanical Hank Aaron and the rest of his peers. Willie was of average size, but he looked imposing at the plate. And in the outfield he was a flat out demon. Nothing excited me more as a kid than to learn that the Giants would be playing on the Game of the Week--the only televised game in those days. Then I'd ask my mom to make sure to shop for baloney, corn chips and bean dip for my Saturday afternoon indulgence. When the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965, I begged my dad to take me to a Giants game, which he did. Willie did nothing special that day, but I recall his cap flying off as he tried to beat out an infield hit. When the umpire called him out, Willie screeched to a halt and turned to face the umpire, seemingly saying: You can't call me out--I'm Willie Mays! The only chink in his armor came much later, when he defended his godson, Barry Bonds, against allegations of steroid use. But I'll let that go. My wife, Theresa, also grew up in a household of Giants fans. Suffice it to say that when we were dating and I learned she was in possession of a Willie Mays bubble gum card, that sealed the deal. It became her dowry. And it is now framed and holding a place of honor in our home.
FYI--the fantastic t-shirt above is from Upper Playground (https://www.upperplaygroundstore.com/catalog/item/1954_1610), which depicts the greatest catch ever made. It came in the 1954 World Series and it's remembered in "The Baseball Project," a CD that I wrote about last month (http://tothesublime.typepad.com/to_the_sublime/2009/04/play-ball.html). From the song: "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays":
In 1954 I was born into this dream. The kind that's always black and white, like an old newsreel I've seen. A mile away in the Polo Grounds, he pulls it in and spins himself around. Sometimes I dream of Willie Mays and tell him I was there.
No, this post isn't about what is quite possibly the most unattractive album cover ever. Though if I ever decide to cover that ground, this will definitely be a contender. Continuing the theme of cover songs (see below), I recently came across an unlikely version of ? and the Mysterians' garage band classic, "96 Tears," by the blues/R&B shouter Big Maybelle. Born Mabel Smith in Tennessee in 1924, Maybelle was a popular singer in the '50s, best known for her gritty, soulful ballad, "Candy." But by the mid-'60s her career was on the wane. Maybe she took a page from Aretha Franklin's book by deciding to cover a few pop tunes. (And maybe she was taking a swipe at Aretha, the Queen of Soul, by calling herself "America's Queen Mother of Soul.")* On this 1967 album (which includes no James Brown songs, despite the "Brand New Bag" reference), Maybelle takes on an eclectic batch of tunes, including Donovan's "Mellow Yellow," The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," and Los Bravos' "Black Is Black." On "96 Tears," Maybelle's version retains the classic organ part from the original, but it gets pumped up by a potent horn section. Oftentimes, cover versions of pop/rock songs by soul singers don't come off well, but Maybelle turns this into a high energy R&B romp (available on iTunes). It was the only single of Maybelle's that made it onto the Billboard charts. She was a classic example of an old school blues/R&B artist whose material couldn't keep up with the changing times. Drug and health problems took their toll and she died in 1972, at the age of 47.
*UPDATED: I'm surmising a bit here, but Aretha Franklin's first two albums on Atlantic were released in 1967. Perhaps they were recorded and released out of order, but her second album, in August of that year, was incongruously titled "Aretha Arrives." (It came out just a few months after Aretha had actually arrived with "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.") And on "Aretha Arrives," she records several pop songs, including the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," Willie Nelson's "Night Life," and ... "96 Tears"! I don't know the month in 1967 when Big Maybelle's album was released, so I can't say for sure who was zoomin' who, but give the edge to Maybelle. Aretha's "96 Tears" doesn't ring true. It just feels like a studio throw-off. Score this one for Big Maybelle. R.I.P.