“I went from the cotton field, to the chicken coop, to a star of R&B”
Joe Simon commenting on the ascent of his career and the corresponding hard work required in establishing that career
Chances are, in discussions of great Soul singers, that Joe Simon’s name is rarely mentioned. That’s both unfortunate and surprising given that, over the course of a career that spanned more than 6 decades:
he had 3 # 1 hits, 14 top ten hits, 38 top forty R&B hits, 4 Grammy nominations including 1 Grammy win
he released 20 acclaimed albums
he’s an R&B Foundation Pioneer Award winner
he was inducted into the Louisiana Hall Of Fame
he was inducted into the Gospel Hall Of Fame
he was the first artist to be inducted into both a religious and secular Hall of Fame
Reasons for his omission in said discussions are left to varied opinions. It could be that the smooth singing Simon wasn’t an attention getting “in your face” screamer. Or the fact that Simon wasn’t on a more noteworthy Soul / R&B label like Stax, or Atlantic, or Motown could conceivably play a role. Or that a good part of his career and subsequent recordings were more in the Country Soul vein rather than straight ahead R&B / Soul / Funk. Also, it can’t be discounted that, although he had a career of over 25 years in secular music, he left “worldly music” for the ministry in the early 80’s for some 40 years when contemporaries were still invested in more high profile R&B recording and performance settings. Running counter to these points is that the line that separate R&B and Gospel gets blurred. Granted the lyrics, subject matter, and performance venues may differ but the commitment remains the same. And, similarly, there’s a thin line of demarcation that separates Country Soul and R&B especially in the rural areas of the deep south as evidenced by the Country Soul that permeates the works of artists like Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, and Clarence Carter. And one could also add that legitimacy of Country strains in Soul music was confirmed when Ray Charles, who’s synonymous with Soul, championed the idea of a Black artist singing what has been generally accepted as white Country music.
Whatever the case, while highly regarded by his peers*, Joe Simon remains one of the most underrated of Soul singers, and thereby commanding comparatively less media attention. And, giving credit where credit’s due, regardless of his lack of notoriety, Joe Simon sought to control his own destiny and career. Further, from humble beginnings including a poverty stricken childhood, it shouldn’t be discounted that Simon’s achievements were as a result of hard work.
*A little known associated fact:
Joe Simon was a close personal friend of Otis Redding. Simon sang “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross” at Otis’ funeral and acted as one of the pallbearers along with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Sam Moore, Percy Sledge, Johnny Taylor, and Joe Tex.
Joe Simon spent his formative years picking cotton in his birth home of Simmesport Louisiana, a farming community 150 miles north of New Orleans. His father, a Baptist preacher, and mother raised Joe, his brother, and three sisters in a religious household. In search of a better life the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when Simon was 15. The move suited Simon in that he hated picking cotton and would make it his life long goal to never pick cotton again. Instead, young Joe turned to singing, firstly with his brother in The Town’s Pilgrim Baptist Church choir, before performing with a number of local Gospel groups including The Vallejo Gospel Singers.
In the mid fifties, Simon left home to try his luck at a singing career, and settled near Oakland in Richmond California. He began singing professionally with The Golden West Gospel Singers; and by 1959 – at 23 years of age – Simon was performing as the lead singer of a secular group, The Echo Tones. The Echo Tones played the California chitlin circuit, and although they had no hits, the group, and Joe in particular, was very popular in the Black clubs.
By Joe’s account, the Richmond period of his career was a tough go. He claimed that over the course of the next two years that he lived in a chicken coup and survived on sardines and crackers provided by his best friend, (and future band leader), Roland Williams. In addition to suppling Joe with food, Williams also gave him spending money, and arranged for Simon to borrow clothes and shoes for upcoming performances.
As Joe was still defining his personal sound – and influenced by a divergent group of singers including The Soul Stirrers, The 5 Blind Boys, Brook Benton, and Nancy Wilson – The Echo Tones started to expand geographically to Los Angeles and as far south as Dallas. While in L.A. the group came to the attention of Hush Records and early Simon mentor Gerrie Thompson. It was on the Hush label that that The Echo Tones, (now The Golden Tones), made their recording debut with modest – mostly local – hits “Doretha” (1959) and “You Left Me Here To Cry Alone” (1960). And, in addition, as a solo artist, Joe would record “It’s A Miracle”. The releases demonstrated that Joe was now starting to find his style, one that echoed Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Jackie Wilson. He would continue to draw comparisons to the three for the rest of his career – particularly Wilson given his, at times, almost operatic approach.
The local hits showed Hush to have minimal visibility and, as a result, failing in attempts to acquire a noteworthy distribution deal. That being the case, and still looking for a breakthrough hit, Joe moved to Vee-Jay Records in 1964. Vee-Jay, out of Chicago, one of the few Black owned labels, recognized Simon’s talent and purchased his contract from Thompson / Hush. Unlike Hush, Vee-Jay had a national distribution deal with Polydor. Joe’s first Vee-Jay release immediately put him on the map. Featuring a backing band that included Sly Stone and Larry Graham, (Sly was a San Francisco based DJ at the time), Simon cut that much needed step-forward hit, “My Adorable One”. The release was still a minor hit in the grand scheme of things, but Joe Simon was now a known commodity.
Simon now had enough of a profile that he caught the eye of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler, an R&B power broker, in the hopes of signing Simon to his label, suggested that Joe try recording at one of his affiliated studios, FAME, in Muscle Shoals Alabama. Simon did just that and delivered his first hit, 1965’s “Let’s Do It Over” (# 13 R&B). The Dan Penn – Spooner Oldham co-write was cut in Muscle Shoals with the R&B defining resident studio band.
Around this time Simon happened to be passing through Nashville where he made the acquaintance of John Richbourg. Better known as John R, Richbourg was a renowned WLAC DJ who also promoted shows and produced records. When Vee-Jay folded later that year Simon joined forces with Richbourg; who became Simon’s manager, producer, and mentor. Although pursued by both Motown and Atlantic, Simon chose to forge a partnership with John R based on a non exclusivity arrangement. That is, Simon would work with Richbourg but was free to capitalize on any outside opportunities that might present themselves. Simply, Simon would explain “Joe Simon always controlled Joe Simon’s career”.
Over the course of the next four years John R would help establish Simon as one of the definitive Country Soul singers of his day, (or any day). Richbourg brought Simon to the Monument subsidiary Sound Stage 7 where Joe would record a string of hits including:
“Teenager’s Prayer” (1966) # 11 R&B “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On” (1968) # 11 R&B “Chokin’ Kind” (1969) # 1 R&B # 20 Pop, Grammy award winner “Farther On Down The Road” (1970) # 7 R&B
In addition to producing the hits John R also assembled an all-star backing band of Country players that played on virtually all the sessions; and usually consisted of: Kenny Buttrey – drums, Tim Drummond – bass, Mac Gayton and Troy Seals – guitar, and Charlie McCoy – harmonica.
In 1970 Richbourg, who continued to maintain ties with Joe for another couple of years, engineered a move to Spring Records, (with Simon eventually becoming a minority owner of the label). Simon had a million seller right out of the gate with “Your Time To Cry” (# 3 R&B) before working with Philly Soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The Gamble & Huff alliance would introduce Simon to a whole new Uptown R&B audience and take his career to yet another level. The success was measured not only in sell-out appearances but also in radio play and record sales of such notable hits as:
“Drowning In A Sea Of Love” (1971) # 3 R7B # 11 Pop “Power Of Love” (1972) # 1 R&B # 11 Pop “Theme From Cleopatra Jones” (1973) # 3 R&B “Get Down, Get Down” (1975) # 1 R&B # 8 Pop “Music In My Bones” (1875) # 7 R&B “I Need You, You Need Me” (1975) # 5 R&B
Simon continued touring and recording but was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the R&B lifestyle; and in 1980, without declaring his future plans, started publicizing that he was retiring after 20 years in the business. In 1983 Joe Simon gave up “worldly music” to become an ordained minister. He did so following a dramatic on-stage moment at a concert in New Orleans when he couldn’t remember the lyrics to songs that he’s sung for over 20 years. Simon described the setting as follows:
“I said to the people, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like for everyone to sit down. I want you to know that I’m not able to sing these songs tonight…I want everyone to go to the front door to the office and get your money back. Because I’m going to church’. And 10,000 people said Hallelujah”.
He would go on to explain that he only sang R&B to make a living, and that the expected behaviour, given his religious upbringing, was diametrically opposed to the life he should have been living. Accordingly, after joining the ministry, Simon was quoted as saying ”To sing R&B you had to act the fool…you had to be arrogant”. He went on to say that he was “serving Satan when he should have been serving God”. And, finally, that his true job was to teach because “That’s what the ministry is all about”.
Joe Simon would go on to preach and sing Gospel for the next 38 years. He also continued to record with the release of 2 Gospel albums: The Story Must Be Told (1998) and Time To Change (2007).
When he passed at 85 on December 13, 2021, he was remembered not only as extremely talented but also as a kind and gentle man. Summing up perfectly the regard held by those that knew him, songstress Bettye LaVette on his passing said “We lost another one of the good guys. RIP Rhythm & Blues legend, Joe Simon. One of the nicest men that I ever met in show business.”
It could be added that Joe Simon spoke and sang straight from the heart. Nothing more needs to be said.
Joe Simon Playlist
Doreetha (w / The Golden Tones)
You Left Me Here To Cry Alone (w / The Golden Tones)
“Anita O’Day is demonstrating at The Blue Note why she is one of the little handful of great stylists among Jazz singers. She can give any song her unmistakable imprint…The girl is so modern she’s almost ahead of herself. Her minor keys and off-beat phrasings have a weird otherworldliness…”
“She was an original, and there’s very few of them in this life. Nobody sang like that before her, but a lot of people tried to sing like that after her.”
Songwriter, arranger, and band leader Johnny Mandel
From her own viewpoint, Anita O’Day was emphatic in saying that she was not a singer per se but rather a song stylist. O’Day, whose idols were 30’s Native American Jazz singer Mildred Bailey and comedic actress and singer Martha Raye, admitted to copying Billie Holiday for a long time before establishing her own sound and style. That style revolved around using her voice like a musician uses their instrument. Studying the phrasings and forays of sax players like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, O’Day was a supreme improvisor. She fashioned lines of rapid-fire syllables, bending and twisting lyrics and melodies. And like any Jazz musician, she would never perform a song the same way twice.
Further, as O’Day explained in a NY Times interview: “I’m not a singer because I have no vibrato*…If I want one, I have to shake my head to get it. That’s why I sing so many notes so you won’t hear that I haven’t got one. It’s how I got my style”.
*O’Day’s lack of vibrato was attributed to a botched tonsillectomy when O’Day was 7 years old. It would be many years later that Anita came to the realization as to the cause of her not having vibrato.
Anita O’Day was often promoted as “The Jezebel Of Jazz” – no doubt primarily due to the high profile drug busts that punctuated her time in the world of Jazz. But there’s more. The moniker also alluded to the fact that Anita O’Day marched to her own drumbeat. She was a hip talking non-conformist who lived for and lived in her music. Like her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald, O’Day only knew true joy on stage and couldn’t reconcile life when she wasn’t performing. And like Ella, O’Day enjoyed a long career; (Anita’s lasted 7 decades; Ella’s lasted 6).
Anita’s life was her art and her art was her life. Any obstacles were dealt with as required to serve her singular devotion to that art with no looking back. By some accounts, Anita lived a lonely life. What’s for sure, for all intents and purposes, O’Day lived her life on the lam, never having money or success commensurate with her obviously abundant talent. Her’s is a story of survival and an endurance of that talent till her last days. Simply put, Anita O’Day was one of America’s greatest Jazz singers; and she can rightfully be mentioned in the same conversation as the A-list: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae.
Anita Belle Colton was born in Kansas City Missouri on October 18, 1919 and moved to Chicago as a young child. Prompting the move was the fact that Anita was born out of wedlock; and as a consequence, her parents were looking to both avoid scrutiny and hoping for a fresh start in a new town. It was an unwanted pregnancy leaving Anita forever scarred; sensing that she was – in her words – “excess baggage”. It was a feeling perpetuated by a mother’s lack of affection and a father who ran out on the family not long after settling in Chicago. To cope, at a young age, Anita learned to be self-reliant, and hid any related pain under a tough, cynical veneer. (Later Anita would turn to alcohol and drugs to numb any suffering associated both with her loveless childhood and the rigors of the life that she had chosen).
Anita, whose “biggest dream was to be a singer”, started on that road at 12 years of age. At 14 she left home to compete in marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. O’Day entered this phase of her life with her eyes wide open. She was well aware of the gruelling hours that she signed up for – staying on her feet for days / nights at a time. She also knew that the bare necessities, (e.g. meals), would be provided along with the opportunity to make more money than anyone that, like her, lacked a formal education. Directly in line with that thinking was Anita’s decision to change her name from Colton to O’Day explaining “I decided that O’Day was groovy because in Pig Latin it meant dough, which is what I hope to make”.
It was during one such marathon that O’Day was asked to sing. “Waiting for this moment my whole life”, Anita responded with a rendition of Al Jolson’s “Is It True What They Say About Dixie”. The song was met with applause, stamping of feet, and an appreciative shower of coins. Anita viewed the moment as a jumping off point to her dream. But, in reality, it was a hint of the success that would only be achieved after a long hard road that lied ahead. That road included three more primary stages: chorus girl, Big Band singer, and finally Jazz singer in her own right.
Returning to Chicago, and confirmed to becoming a singer, Anita started on her quest by working as a chorus girl in uptown locations such as The Celebrity Club and Vanity Fair. That was followed by a stint as a singer/ waitress at various clubs. (One such venue, The Vialago, was where Anita met her first husband, drummer Don Carter. Although the marriage would only last a year, Carter furthered her career by introducing O’Day to music theory).
In 1938, at age 19, Anita started guesting with various bands at clubs around town when DownBeat editor Carl Cons hired her for his new Off-Beat Club. The club quickly became a hangout for Jazz musicians of all stripes. Flashy and charismatic drummer Gene Krupa, on a tip, decided to check her out. Impressed, Krupa promised to call Anita if his current vocalist, Irene Daye, ever left the band. It took 3 years, but after the call finally came in 1941, Krupa and O’Day started to make Big Band history.
Anita, would do two year-long stints, (1941 and 1945 respectively), with the Krupa band early in her career. She was hired as a featured female vocalist as was the custom with Big Bands. That is, Big Bands would employ a female singer, (or “canary” as they were termed in the day), as a change of pace, performing a limited number of songs in the course of an evening. It was an accepted glamour role with the singer usually dressed elegantly with a strapless or flowing evening gown. This was in stark contrast to the musicians in the band who would be dressed in matching band uniforms, (jacket and trousers). Once established, O’Day, knowing full well that she had a lot to offer musically, balked at being perceived as just “the girl singer in the band”. Instead, she insisted that, as part of the band, she be allowed to dress as the members of the band. In so doing, O’Day was a trend setter appearing with a jacket and either a skirt or trousers. Anita wasn’t pursuing an agenda or making a statement as such, she was just being herself. (Although it wasn’t lost on all concerned that O’Day wanted to be treated as a musician and an equal to the rest of the band).
In the two terms that O’Day served with Krupa she would record 34 sides and 5 hits. Those hits would include two duets with impressive trumpeter Roy Eldridge who was hired at about the same time that Krupa hired Anita. O’Day and Eldridge had a natural chemistry that paid dividends on both tracks: “Let Me Off Uptown” and “Thanks For The Boogie Ride”. The first, “Uptown” – that sold more than 100,000 copies – not only made Anita a star and boosted the popularity of the Krupa band; it stands as ground breaking in that it also was one of the first interracial duets on record.
The audience and the media took notice. O’Day, who Krupa described as “…a wild chick but how she could sing”, was named as “Outstanding New Star” in an Esquire poll. At the same time, DownBeat named her “New Star Of The Year”. A year later DownBeat would select Anita as one of the top five Big Band singers. (Anita would place fourth behind Helen O’Connell, Helen Forrest, and Billie Holiday; and ahead of Dinah Shore). Lastly in 1945, having rejoined Krupa, DownBeat named her “Top Girl Band Vocalist”. These were the first of many more accolades that would be bestowed on O’Day in the course of her lengthy career.
Anita would continue with singing with other Big Bands after leaving Krupa including those led by Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. While having some moments, e.g. a # 4 hit with Kenton “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”, O’Day’s career and popularity went to the next level when she launched her solo career in the late 40’s, (usually opting to perform in live settings with a trio that allowed her room to experiment and improvise). This is especially true during the 50’s that defined Anita’s career.
Given that her popularity and success surged and sagged in unison with her continued dependency on drugs and alcohol it may be best to get this element of her life out of the way so that we can concentrate on Anita’s artistic endeavours. Anita was busted for pot possession in 1947 and 1952, and for heroin possession in 1953 when she served 6 months in jail. O’Day started smoking pot when she was young (and it was still legal). And, given her surroundings and the times, alcohol was always readily available to her. Further, not to give her a pass, but the truth is that as a heroin user, she didn’t take advantage of those close to her to the degree that others had in order to feed her habit, (like, for instance, a Chet Baker). Rather, the only person she really harmed was herself, denying herself not only of consistently good health, but also of fame and fortune. Anita estimated that she spent close to $400,000 on heroin in the course of her career. And living a junkie life, in the 15 years that she was addicted – 1952 through 1967 – her daily objective to score was all consuming. O’Day needed a fix to simply maintain the required bodily chemical balance so that she could function somewhat normally. It was only after a near death overdose in 1967 that Anita kicked the habit cold turkey. Reflecting on those years in a 1973 interview with the L.A. Times O’Day summed it up this way: “The narcotics thing was just there. It was what was happening and it kept me in and out of trouble for 20 years”.
As a last point on the subject, while enablers played a role, the perception in the 40’s and 50’s specifically was such that the Jazz life was viewed as synonymous with drug use. Accordingly, to put things in perspective, in the course of drug enforcement, Jazz artists were tailed and hounded continually. And, on more than one occasion, it was proven that informants were sent to plant evidence on musicians thereby ensuring an easy bust. _______________________________________________________________
Anita’s career took flight when Norman Granz signed her to his Verve label in 1952. (A year after Anita’s first substantial solo success with a cover of Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz”). Granz started the label primarily as a platform for Ella Fitzgerald. In addition to Fitzgerald, (who didn’t use drugs of any kind), Granz built his label on artists that other companies wouldn’t touch because of their respective drug histories. Such notable Verve artists included Jazz giants Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday.
For her part, Anita recorded some 17 quality albums for the label with both small group and larger ensemble settings. To everyone’s mutual benefit Granz allowed her more say in the material that was recorded as well as how it should be presented. None put her talent on full display more than Anita (released 1955), Anita O’Day Sings The Most (1957) and Anita O’Day Sings The Winners, (1958). Anita features O’Day’s unforgettable takes on standards such as “You’re The Top”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”. “The Most” matches O’Day with the Oscar Peterson Quartet – his regular trio is augmented with O’Day’s long time platonic musical partner John Poole on drums – on a set that includes O’Day’s special treatment on standards like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Them There Eyes”. “The Winners” features covers that O’Day has been long associated with like Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Sing Sing Sing”, a Louis Prima composition that Benny Goodman turned into a classic Swing hit. Also included is an outstanding take on Woody Herman’s instrumental “Four Brothers”. In this instance, because there are no lyrics, O’Day was given only sheet music and left to her own devices. As such, Anita – whose improvisational skills are legendary – proceeds to give a graduate course in scatting that’s nothing short of amazing. Her interaction with the horns is such that her instrumentally inspired lines are virtually interchangeable with theirs.
Although struggling with her addiction, that caused periods of inactivity, O’Day remained popular, securing high profile club gigs and festival dates, (usually in the company of other featured Jazz greats). One such festival appearance was the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival where she shared the stage with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, and Miles Davis. Many critics cite Anita’s performance – that made her an international star – as the highlight of her career. (At the very least it opened doors to global markets – especially Japan where Anita returned for well received shows and festival dates numerous times starting in 1960). Anita performed both an afternoon and evening show on the closing Sunday backed by a trio including John Poole on drums. Two songs from her nine song afternoon set are captured in the film “Jazz On A Summer’s Day”. Anita is a striking figure in high heels, a tight black dress, a matching wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, and long white gloves. Not only is she impeccably dressed; despite, (in her own words), being, “high as a kite”, she lays down a version of “Tea For Two” at breakneck speed and a take on “Sweet Georgia Brown” that Newport producer George Wein lauded as the best rendition of the song ever. Her performance rivals all others’ featured in the documentary.
As the 60’s approached Anita would continue to record and tour but the effects of the substance abuse were starting to take its toll. It’s safe to say that her career nosedived as her heroin addiction effectively took control of her life. Compounding the issue, after her overdose in 1967, O’Day started to experience heart problems as a result of her heroin use.
But the ever resilient O’Day made a comeback in 1970 at 51 years of age. A highly acclaimed performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival effectively got her career back on track. Starting with a live recording of her performance at the Berlin festival, Anita would release 8 albums in the decade proving that even as her considerable vocal skills were diminishing, she still had a lot to offer her legion of fans. And given how interwoven her life and music were, Anita acknowledged the support and encouragement of those fans despite her personal battles: “Without them you’re nothing…That’s where my heart lies. That’s all I’ve got. I had a couple of boyfriends. Duds. A Couple of husbands. Gone. But you always get something back if you give. That’s never changed”.
The 80’s kicked off with the release of her autobiography High Times Hard Times that made the New York Times best seller list. It’s a no holds barred account of both Anita’s joys and hardships. Although documenting O’Day’s triumphs, the book is chilling with stories of sexual assaults, backroom abortions, and failed marriages. On a brighter note, the 80’s were also marked by a stellar performance in 1985 concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating Anita’s 50 years in Jazz.
Settling in Los Angeles, O’Day wasn’t done yet. Anita released 12 more albums in the 80’s and 90’s. (Her last release, appropriately titled Indestructible, hit the streets in 2005 – when Anita was 86 years old!). And she remained a popular live attraction in her adopted home until the end of her life.
Anita O’Day lived a full, albeit hard, life on her own terms. She was constantly crashing, and learning to stand up again. She always appeared to be struggling despite her brilliance as evidenced by her earnings that swung from $2,000 a week to $200 a week at various junctures in her career. But, in all, she persevered and survived. Following continuing health issues Anita died in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2006.
Anita O’Day was once defined as “The greatest white girl Jazz singer in the world”. Anita legitimately earned the title and also paid the cost.
“ … Ma Rainey is ‘Mother Of The Blues’… Bessie Smith is ‘Empress Of The Blues’…‘Big Joe Turner is ‘Boss Of The Blues’…”
Atlantic Records press release
“Rocket 88” released on the Chess label and performed by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is credited in a number of circles as the first Rock & Roll song. Written by Brenston and Ike Turner, (The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm), the song hit # 1 R&B in 1951. A case can be made, however, for another R&B chart topping hit having that distinction – “Shake Rattle And Roll” released in 1954 by renowned Blues shouter Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. The “Shake Rattle And Roll” claim fits perfectly with a quote by legendary Blues and R&B songsmith, (and former R&B singer), Doc Pomus when inducting Big Joe in The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously in 1987: “Rock & Roll couldn’t have happened without Big Joe Turner”. It wouldn’t be the first time that Big Joe Turner played an integral role in a sustaining musical trend.
Turner was born and raised in Kansas City Missouri and during his formative years Prohibition – a national constitutional ban in place from 1920 to 1933 banning the production, importation, and transportation of alcohol – was at its height. Kansas City in the 20’s and 30’s was a wide open town that, for all intents and purposes, ignored the Prohibition laws. Run by gangsters and aided by corrupt political boss T. J. Pendergast who controlled Kansas City at the time, the manufacture and sale of alcohol, as well as gambling and prostitution were viewed as harmless sidelines. Kansas City, meanwhile, was in its musical heyday, a hotbed of Blues and Jazz. The Kansas City Jazz sound was a distinctly raucous, and untamed outpouring topped with shouting Blues that could be heard in thriving clubs and speakeasies that operated 24 hours a day.
In further illustration of the situation at hand, in an interview, Big Joe Turner described a typical night at The Sunset where he and Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson had a residency:
“All the working people came early…and got high and had a ball. Then things would quiet down and finally there wouldn’t be nobody in there except the bartender, waiter, and the boss; and we’d start playing about 3 o’clock in the morning. People used to say that they could hear me hollerin’ five blocks away. It would still be the morning and the bossman would set up corn liquor and we’d rock. Just about that time we’d be started to have a good time, here come the high-hats, and we’d set the joint on fire then and really have a ball till 10 or 11 o’clock in the day. Sleep? Who wants to sleep with all the Blues jumpin’ around?”
And in the event of an infrequent raid by the police:
“The boss would have his bondsman down at the police station before we got there. We’d walk in, sign our names and walk right out. Then we would cabaret till morning”.
This was the backdrop of the times when Turner was forced to be resourceful early in life. His father passed away when Joe was quite young; leaving him as the only means of support for his mother and sister. It was the early 1920’s, and the enterprising Turner’s first job was leading a blind singer through the streets of Kansas City for 50¢. (Interested in singing himself, Turner started by singing along with an uncle who was a nightclub piano player and in church choirs before doing so on street corners for tips from passersby that were drawn to his natural deep booming voice).
At 14 years of age, Big Joe was already, in fact, big – standing 6’ 2”. Appearing older than his age, (aided at times by a pencilled mustache and his father’s hat), Turner quit school and found work in Kansas City bars. He was first hired as a cook whose job included hauling bootleg whiskey. Turner was soon promoted to the role of “The Singing Barman”. Specifically, between serving drinks to patrons, Turner shouted the Blues – unamplified – into the street to attract prospective customers. Big Joe Turner would soon become the greatest Blues shouter / singer in town; and rivalled only by Jimmy Rushing, “Mr. Five By Five”, who came to prominence with Count Basie’s band in 1935.
The next stage, and a major factor in Big Joe Turner’s career, occurred when he teamed up with Boogie-Woogie piano player Pete Johnson. The story goes that the two met in the early 30’s when Joe happened to stop in at one of the local haunts, The Backbiter Club, where Johnson and his band were playing. After some conversation, Turner convinced Johnson to let him sit in. The fact that there was no P.A. system – Johnson’s band performed strictly instrumentals – didn’t pose a problem because, as Turner had done many times in his bartending days, he could make himself heard without a mic over the din of a rowdy crowd. Also, material wasn’t a challenge either in that Turner – through his experience in numerous jam sessions, including those with big bands – had developed a talent for improvising on a large vocabulary of traditional Blues phrases and verses. Thus was formed a partnership that would play a key role in the establishment of the Boogie-Woogie era that came to prominence in the late 30’s and early 40’s and would serve as a staple of early Rock & Roll.
Once well-known, the duo’s regular gigs at The Sunset were a proving ground that would deliver a further significant breakthrough in Big Joe’s career. It was in 1938 at The Sunset that legendary talent scout John Hammond first discovered Turner and booked him for his “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Turner performed along with The Boogie-Woogie Boys: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis – a trio of Boogie-Woogie piano players. (It wasn’t Turner’s first attempt to break into the NYC scene; in 1936 Big Joe and Johnson appeared on a bill with Benny Goodman but were not well received. Turner’s take on that experience was “they weren’t ready for us”). Turner’s performance led to further opportunities with appearances at various New York clubs before landing a lengthy residency at Café Society.
Big Joe’s popularity wasn’t only confined to New York. After his initial recording with Pete Johnson, “Roll ’Em Pete”, earned him some notoriety, he and Johnson expanded their musical horizons nationally, eventually working their way to the West Coast. (Well established there, Big Joe called Hollywood home for a time, and he and Johnson briefly owned a bar in L.A., The Blue Moon Club).
“Roll ‘Em Pete” continued to be one of Big Joe’s best known songs that he would record several times through the course of his career with various combinations of musicians. It was the first of a number of sides recorded on the Vocalion label, including another popular single “Cherry Red”. Like “Cherry Red”, “Roll ‘Em Pete” is basically a collection of traditional Blues lyrics that Joe used to maximum effect:
“Well I got a gal, she lives up on the hill (2X) Well this woman’s tryin’ to quit me Lord but I love her still
She’s got eyes like diamonds, they shine like Klondike gold (2X) Every time she loves me She sends my mellow soul”
“Roll ‘Em Pete” not only ignited a Boogie-Woogie craze, but it also showed Big Joe’s Blues to be an exuberant display of fun and sheer delight: “Roll ‘em boy, we all jump for joy”. For those who hadn’t experienced Big Joe in live performance, the song was an introduction to a sense of freedom apparent in Turner’s Blues that helped usher in a new world for urban Blacks, and stood in stark contrast to the images and spirit of Country Blues. And, (primarily independent), record companies were quick to realize the market potential and the readily expanding market needs. Indeed Turner, with his physical vocals, (and supported by Johnson’s percussive piano), helped cultivate a thriving independent record industry while developing a genre of Blues shouting that became a major force of WWII R&B.
In addition to Vocalion, in the late 40’s Turner would record for a number of the newly founded West Coast indies including Alladin, Imperial, RPM, Varsity, Okeh, and Decca. Unfortunately, there were no hits as Turner saw a decline in popularity for artists performing and recording in a similar Blues / R&B/ Jazz style. Consequently, as the 40’s drew to a close, Turner retreated to Kansas City as a base while he contemplated future opportunities. Unbeknownst to Big Joe, he would soon embark on the most successful period of his career.
Turner, who never stopped working and touring, was appearing at The Apollo Theatre in 1951 when he was visited after his show by Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun of Atlantic Records. (The Ertegun brothers were big fans having first seen Turner at Café Society in 1938 as well as hiring Turner when they organized the first Jazz concert in Washington D.C. in 1942). Certain that it would be a successful venture, they convinced him to sign with Atlantic. Their instincts served them well as Turner’s 20 single releases repeatedly hit the charts. In addition, they benefitted from several critically acclaimed albums that were released from 1951 through to the end of the decade. Although the songs cut on Turner were R&B based they competed in the burgeoning Rock & Roll arena as playlists of the day featured prospective hits regardless of genre. As such, Big Joe Turner was one of the few of the Boogie-Woogie era to successfully cross over into Rock & Roll; (even though Turner was 40 years old when he signed with Atlantic – old by Rock & Roll standards).
The hits started immediately with the Ahmet Ertegun penned “Chains Of Love” a million seller in 1951. Other million sellers included “Honey Hush”, “Flip Flop And Fly”, and “Corrine, Corrina”. And, of course, no discussion of Big Joe’s Atlantic years would be complete without mentioning the R&B chart topper “Shake Rattle And Roll” that was arguably deprived of million selling status because of a lack of airplay due to perceived risqué lyrics. (Record buyers instead bought Bill Haley And The Comets‘ sanitized version that included a simplified beat and “cleaned up” lyrics. However, it bears mentioning that the most well known song of Turner’s resurgent career received significant play on juke boxes in an era that saw approximately half of the records produced destined for jukeboxes.)
Of the various albums released on the Atlantic, two deserve special mention. The first, was originally released in 1956 as Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz: The Boss Of The Blues, and reissued in 1976 as The Boss Of The Blues. The album reunites Turner with Pete Johnson on piano and features remakes of their Vocalion hits “Roll ‘Em Pete”, “Cherry Red”, and “Wee Wee Baby”. The second notable album is the big band dominated Big Joe Rides Again, (also featuring Johnson), that was originally released in 1959 and reissued under the same title in 1988. “Rides Again” contains the stellar recordings “Switchin’ In The Kitchen”, “Nobody In Mind”, “Rebecca” (a partner to “Roll ‘Em Pete” / “Cherry Red”), and “Don’t You Make Me High” (AKA “Don’t You Feel My Leg”).
The success, however, would soon run its course. The early 60’s saw Atlantic change their approach when recording Turner by softening the sound with vocal choirs and symphonic stings. This tactic was foreign to Turner’s straight ahead no frills attack; and, as a result, Big Joe grew disenchanted and left the label. Although he would continue to record, (on obscure labels), Turner, now a full time West Coast resident, spent his time mostly playing clubs in L.A. – primarily with small Jazz and Blues combos – and making movie appearances.
In the 70’s Turner was reintroduced to the National audience with recordings on the Bluesway and Pablo labels. Of note in this era is the Pablo release The Best Of JoeTurner. Somewhat less powerful but still employing his boisterous style in his late 60’s, Big Joe is backed by Jazz heavyweights including Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell, Sonny Stitt, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Turner continued recording into the 80’s, and was in constant demand by major Jazz and Folk festivals in North America and Europe. His last release, Blues Train, backed by the collective Roomful Of Blues and produced by Doc Pomus, earned Turner a Grammy Award in 1983. The honour is added to other acknowledgments received including:
1945 Esquire Magazine “Best Male Singer”
1956 Downbeat “Top Male Singer”
1965 Melody Maker “Top Male Singer”
1965 Jazz Journal “Best Blues Record”
1987 Induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
Doc Pomus, upon hearing Big Joe Turner’s powerful, unmannered vocals for the first time, was quoted as saying “that this is how a man should sound”. Adding substance to that statement, Big Joe Turner’s voice reflected his personality – direct and forthright. Big Joe Turner’s powerful baritone was silenced on November 24, 1985 at the age of 74.
During the peak of his career in the mid 50’s Prima summed up his appeal in a Downbeat interview: “Variety. The audience never knows what comes next. And to tell you the truth, neither do we. We always throw them surprises, and they love it”
Like many families of my generation, we always gravitated towards the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evenings in the 50’s and 60’s. The dour Sullivan, a New York entertainment columnist, produced and hosted the variety show, and also selected the various acts that would appear over the course of the one hour program. One of the more frequent guests were Louis Prima & Keely Smith.
Given their stage act – singer Smith standing stoically with her hands behind her back unimpressed while Prima thrashed around clowning, scatting, singing – I thought that they were one of the many comedy acts that appeared on the show from time to time. This impression was shared by the general populace that viewed Prima as an entertainer rather than a serious musician.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to realize that Prima, a Louis Armstrong devotee, was in fact, a fine trumpet player, songwriter, and band leader. Also, to Prima’s credit, he continually kept current and reinvented himself in the course of his 5 decade career.
The ballad of Louis Leo Prima, “The King Of The Swingers,” started on December 10, 1910. Born to Sicilian immigrants, Louis grew up on St. Peter Street in the Treme′ neighbourhood of New Orleans. (At the time of Louis’ birth New Orleans had the most Italian and Sicilian immigrants of any city in the U.S.). Louis can thank his mother Angelina for getting him started on the road to being a musician in that she insisted that the three Prima children take music lessons. Accordingly, he took violin lessons while his older brother Leon and sister Elizabeth took piano lessons. (Leon, a future well-known local band leader and club owner, later switched to cornet and Louis followed suit).
Louis, who played violin well enough to win first prize in an amateur contest, taught himself to play trumpet at 13 and started his own band – Louis Prima’s Kid Band – a year later. His musical selections were centred on New Orleans Jazz that Louis first heard and quickly captured his imagination in the many integrated Italian and African American neighbourhoods in Treme′ and the French quarter. Both in live performance and on record, Prima was especially taken by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong’s improvisational skills.
Sensing that his future was that of a working musician, Louis left high school before graduation and immediately joined the musicians union. His initial relatively significant jobs were playing in a theatre pit band as well as a member of a number of small Jazz combos at his brother Leon’s night club.
Over the course of the next few years Prima, who was said “learned to swing before he learned how to talk”, started gaining a fair bit of notoriety around New Orleans cultivating a large, both male and female, fan base. (His legion of female fans bears mentioning because his appeal to women was not lost on Prima. He would be married five times in addition to having numerous affairs over the course of his life thus putting a strain on both his personal and professional life going forward).
Thinking that there was more to discover, in 1933-34 he moved first to Cleveland and then Chicago, where he made his recording debut on Bluebird Records, before returning to New Orleans once again. As it would happen Guy Lombardo was in New Orleans in 1934 taking in Mardi Gras festivities when he caught Prima and His New Orleans Gang at brother Leon’s Club Shim Sham on Bourbon Street. Suitably impressed, Lombardo befriended Prima and persuaded him to try his luck in New York.
Although having contacts provided by Lombardo, Prima wasn’t finding immediate success in New York. His prospects changed however when he was booked to play the newly opened Famous Door on 52nd Street. Prima and his New Orleans Gang turned what had started as a musicians club into an entertainment landmark.
His good fortune in New York would be short lived however. Amid his growing success at The Famous Door and his popular Brunswick recordings Prima unexpectedly moved with his band to L.A. in 1935. While stating that he was looking for new challenges, rumours persisted that he was being leaned on by certain members of the mob that wanted a piece of the action thus hastening his exit.
In L.A. he opened his own club for a time – The Famous Door, (that had no affiliation to the NY club). Capitalizing on the Swing craze, and the predilection for big bands, Prima expanded his band calling it The Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra. Prima continued to perform locally, tour, and record with the hugely popular big band well into the 40’s. Prima’s blending of Jazz with his natural bent for appearing to have the time of his life while performing not only attracted a considerable fan base but also earned him great reviews. Louis Prima was riding high in Jazz popularity polls.
His band became more about fun and less about Jazz as his comedic side began to unfold and flourish. Prima displayed a total irreverence for lyrics; treating them like a piece of music and constantly improvising. Prima pushed the limits by adding Italian to his zany onstage persona. He started employing fractured Italian phrases not only in performance and but on his recordings as well – with recordings like “Felicia No Capicia”, “Please No Squeeze Da Banana”, and “Oh, Marie”. With the anti-Italian sentiment running high during and well after WW II, he did so to the dismay of many critics who didn’t take kindly to his antics while pushing his ethnic identity. He refused to tone it down, and dismissed any backlash stating that he was a product of both his American and Italian cultures. (It didn’t help matters that Prima didn’t serve in the military due to a knee injury).
L.A. proved to be a perfect place for Louis to leverage his popularity as he started to appear in a number of films, (always in a musical role). In fact it was in his first film – 1936’s Rhythm On The Range – with Big Crosby that Prima debuted a song “Sing Bing Sing” that morphed into “Sing, Sing, Sing”, which became a standard as well as a major Swing hit for Benny Goodman.
Prima rode the big band wave until 1949 when he saw that the big band era was dying. Prima’s next move would simultaneously propel him to the height of his creativity and popularity. In a matter of a few months he established his definitive band line-up and found the perfect venue for both his music and stage show.
It all started when Prima was holding auditions in Norfolk Virginia for new female singer to replace his long time vocalist Lilly Ann Carol in 1948. That’s when he came upon the 20 year old Dorothy Jacqueline Keely. The singer, soon to be known to all as Keely Smith, was a visually striking woman who possessed a large natural voice and employed smooth relaxed phrasing. And, just as importantly, she could swing with ease. His next move was the decision to return to fronting a small combo that could readily combine the Jazz of his early years with fun of his later years. To realize his vision he hired New Orleans musicians Sam Butera and The Witnesses as the backbone of his new band. Butera, who formed and led the band, brought his honking sax and knack for arranging Louis’ wild musical excursions. Prima did most of the solo work on trumpet while ably supported by Butera along with James Blount on trombone.
The venue was The Sahara Hotel lounge in Las Vegas. Taking a resident booking at a Las Vegas club, hardly a prestigious gig at that time, was a risky proposition. The reason is that, generally speaking, any live music wasn’t the main attraction; it commanded little attention from an audience whose primary reason for being at the venue was to gamble, (and drink). Musicians usually went to Vegas as a last resort, waving the white flag, and admitting to all concerned that they could get no other gigs. Or, alternatively, they were at the end of their careers trying to milk whatever was left of their appeal. Some musician friends advised him not to take the job, but Prima decided to follow his instincts (that would serve him well).
Every night the audience was treated to a mix of styles incorporating Prima’s New Orleans trumpet, combined with Swing standards, Prima’s hits, and Butera’s R&B flavoured playing and arrangements. They would play 5 sets a night opening each show with “When You’re Smiling” and closing with “When The Saints Go Marching In”. In between, Keely would stand unmoved and unsmiling, gazing up at the sky while Prima with his distinctively raspy voice would take the lead on the vocals – all the while trying to entice the indifferent Smith to join in. A Variety Review noted “Prima’s uninhibited verve on stage is instantly communicated to his audience while Smith’s deadpan make-up is used as a foil for Prima as he affectionately kids her”. The routine would also include breakaway solos by both Prima and Butera as part of their trumpet / sax face-offs, and would be offset by warm ballads by Smith.
It didn’t take long for the Prima / Smith / Butera team to make the Sahara Lounge a place to see and be seen. News of their uninhibited entertaining stage show quickly spread as they consistently sold out every show throughout the 50’s and into the 60’s. (As an aside, The Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop were regular attendees and admirers). It was also in this time period that Prima released his most popular and best selling album, 1956’s The Widest, that included songs that would become synonymous with Prima: “Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody”, “Buona Sera”, “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail”, and “Night Train”. (Prima would always contend that the recording was their best at replicating a Sahara show at 3 o’clock in the morning – when things were jumping and in full swing). Other recordings were well received as well; for example, Prima and Smith won a 1959 Grammy for their rendition of “That Old Black Magic”. All contributed to making Prima and company arguably the hottest act in show business at the time.
Just as Sam Butera is given his due as a musician, band leader, and arranger so too should Keely Smith be viewed as more than as simply Prima’s complementary sidekick. While certainly discovered by Prima who provided her a forum to display her talents, Smith proved to be an integral part of the show; and revitalized his career. Along the way, among other acknowledgements, Smith received a Grammy for her 1958 album I Wish You Love, and a 1959 Playboy Jazz Award. And, it goes without saying that, after Smith left the collective when she divorced Prima in 1961 – Smith was Prima’s fourth wife and, as part of a recurring theme, divorced him on the grounds of his infidelity – she was sorely missed. Her replacement, Gia Miano, (Prima’s fifth and last wife), paled in comparison when it came to Smith’s vocal expertise, comedic talent, and stage presence.
(As a last point on the Prima / Smith team, their influence on American culture can be found at various moments, and none more so than the 1970’s popular Sonny & Cher show. The TV show was surely influenced by Louis and Keely in that it pitted an eager buffoon (Sonny) against “a disdaining ice queen” (Cher)).
Prima continued to play Vegas and tour the country into the 70’s. He continually changed his band line-up and his sound to keep pace with, and incorporate, whatever was hot at the time – be it R&B or Rock & Roll. Although he would never again hit the heights of his popularity during the Prima / Smith / Butera union, he remained a big draw until the end.
Prima’s final moment in the national spotlight came in 1967 when he supplied the voice of King Louie, the orangutan in the Disney animated feature The Jungle Book. The song “I Wan’na Be Like You” was a hit and went on to be covered by the likes of Los Lobos and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. And, it was obvious to anyone who had ever seen Louis perform that the King Louie character was directly inspired by Prima’s on stage antics.
Louis Prima underwent surgery in 1975 to remove a benign brain tumour. He survived the surgery but fell into a coma for three years and subsequently died on August 24, 1978.
Louis Prima carved out his own musical niche using that music as a means of conveying a joyful spirit. In doing so, Prima displayed a rare combination of a high-spirited musical personality and comic genius. And, make no mistake, Louis Prima began as a musician and was a musician until the end. In so doing, Louis Prima was truly one of a kind.
A Louis Prima Playlist
Body And Soul
By The Light Of The Silvery Moon
Sing, Sing, Sing
Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody
Felicia No Capicia
(Nothing’s Too Good) For My Baby
Basin Street Blues / When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
To some casual music followers the album Silk Degrees and the song “Lowdown” mark the beginning of a brief 5 year / 4 album career that flashed as a bolt across the sky and was gone. It might surprise those same people that Scaggs had a viable career well before he hit the mainstream in the 70’s, and is still going strong in the 50 plus years since his first release – his “busker album” Boz, recorded in Stockholm Sweden in 1965.
In fact that career has had at least 4 distinct chapters to date prefaced by a period of time bumming around Europe, soul searching, before being convinced that he was going to be a professional musician. Already captivated by music, (always Blues, R&B, and Country centred), and immersed – having played in a number of bands both at home and England – Boz, in the uncertainty of his path in life, decided instead to see the world. It was upon his return to the U.S. that things started to unfold for him musically.
The first phase of his career was that of an earthy Roots Rocker as a member of The Steve Miller Band. Chapter two was Boz living his dream as a Texas Blues / R&B / Country singer and guitar player par excellence. The previously mentioned era, highlighted by Silk Degrees, was a natural extension of the Blues cum R&B persona and represents an effortless, smooth transition to Uptown Soul – a place where Philly Soul and Motown are anchored by Muscle Shoals and Memphis roots. Finally, Boz’s current period is characterized by drawing on all of his influences as a peerless interpreter exhibiting a high degree of emotional honesty.
Born William Royce Scaggs in Canton Ohio in 1944 – his family members still refer to him as Billy Royce – Scaggs spent his formative years first in Oklahoma and then Plano Texas, (a farm town north of Dallas). Boz was drawn to music in his preteen years – specifically Blues and R&B that were the prevalent local styles everywhere he turned, whether it be the radio or live performance. A key moment that Scaggs remembers to this day was when, barely in his teens, he heard T-Bone Walker’s “Blues For Marili” on the car radio. He recalls “it was one of the sweetest things my ears had ever heard; just perfection”. Scaggs also cites another moment as defining and foreshadowing when at 15 he attended a Ray Charles concert in Dallas. One of the few whites in a capacity audience, Boz witnessed a performance forever indelibly etched in his brain: “It gave me some hint, some clue, to what my life might be like if my life was perfect”.
At the time Scaggs’ two favourite artists were Ray Charles (“for the big band he had”) and Jimmy Reed. Boz recalls “I remember Jimmy Reed’s voice and thinking that I was hearing something from another universe; something so appealing and beautiful – so exotic”. Boz was also drawn to Reed because, as a rudimentary guitar player, he found in Reed’s songs a certain simplicity: “everyone can play that”.
It was also in Dallas, at the age of 15, while attending a private school, St. Mark’s, that Boz made the acquaintance of 16 year old guitar whiz Steve Miller. (As a side note, Miller took some lessons as a child from a frequent visitor to the Miller household – the legendary Les Paul). Scaggs joined Miller’s band The Marksmen primarily as a singer because he was a relative novice guitar player compared to Miller. It was Miller that he credits with teaching him the finer points of guitar as a teen. The two would team up once again in Madison Wisconsin after Scaggs’ graduation from St. Mark’s. There they would join forces in various bands, (including The Ardells and The Fabulous Knight Trains), primarily playing the frat party circuit. (In fact, Steve Miller would continue to be a constant presence and mentor well into Scaggs’ career).
At this point, not thinking seriously of a music career, Boz ended up in the army stationed in San Antonio. On off hours he’d would head some 80 miles north to Austin to both play and take in the music scene – and after being discharged, decided to move there. Scaggs formed a band in Austin, (The Wigs), but found it tough sledding in that they were unable to get any traction locally. Following a failed attempt to get the band established in England, Boz decided once again to step away and consider his options.
It was early in 1965 that Scaggs decided to change course and do some exploring while he sorted things out. He travelled to Denmark, France, and Spain among other places before making Stockholm Sweden his home base over the next couple of years. He was working odd jobs as well as busking when he came across an opportunity to record an album for Polydor. Simply titled Boz, the release, with Scaggs singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harp, featured 12 covers that he performed regularly in the course of playing the street corners of Stockholm. In a day-long session Boz laid down his own versions of “Mockingbird”, “Stormy Monday”, and “Girl From The North Country” among others.
He was somewhat content with his bohemian lifestyle – that coincided perfectly with Boz’s laid back “take the path of least resistance” approach – as he contemplated his next move. That next move would come courtesy of Steve Miller. Boz received a postcard from Miller providing him with a topline of the San Francisco scene in addition to telling him of his need of a guitar player for his newly formed band. After agreeing to the idea of joining his band, Miller sent Boz a one way ticket to do just that in San Francisco.
The Steve Miller Band was one of the more buttoned down, professional bands on the scene. (Miller arrived in San Francisco from Chicago some two years previous having served as co-leader of The Miller–Goldberg Blues Band there). They were likened more to, say, John Cippolina’s Quicksilver Messenger Service, and didn’t stretch out like experimental jam bands, e.g. The Grateful Dead. They also had a distinct advantage of being long time electric musicians unlike a number of the local bands that were transitioning from acoustic to electric.
Boz would provide vocals, both lead and rhythm guitar, and songwriting to the collective over the course of 2 well regarded albums and a nine month stay in the band. Personal highlights included “Steppin’ Stone” and “Baby’s Calling Me Home” (from the first, Children Of The Future), and “Dime-A-Dance Romance” (from the second, Sailor).
Boz’s time with the Miller band was short lived because he recognized very quickly that he had definite ideas on music matters that could only be realized by stepping out on his own. Things weren’t exactly moving quickly for Scaggs when he happened to strike up a conversation with neighbour Jann Wenner, co-founder and editor of Rolling Stone magazine. With his position in the music industry Wenner, who had a number of contacts both on the artist and business side, reached out to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. As it happened, Wexler had just poached The Swampers, the excellent studio band, from Rick Hall’s FAME Studios; and had financed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios as the enticement in luring them away from Hall’s employ. That being the case, he was looking for an opportunity to give them immediate work, and, in turn, suggested to Wenner that he send Boz to MSSS to record. Not only would Boz be recording with a studio band that had played on a number of Southern Soul hits but Wenner also convinced Duane Allman to return and join the sessions. (Allman had left FAME, previous to The Swampers’ defection, to form The Allman Brothers Band). Boz noted that Allman had an enormous impact on the ensuing recording: “His spirit pervades that entire album. He set the tone for it.”
Scaggs was The Swampers’ first client. And although it took some time to get the rightful recognition, the album that they cut – Boz Scaggs – proved to be one of the definitive albums of the decade, and an outstanding example of Roots / Americana at its’ finest before the term became fashionable. Produced by Wenner, Marlin Green (producer of Percy Sledge’s smash “When A Man Loves A Woman”), and Scaggs, the album features 9 beautifully sequenced songs incorporating Roots Rock, Southern Soul, Country, and Blues.
There are a number of highlights, (and related back stories), but the undisputed centrepiece is the 12 minute plus “Loan Me A Dime”. Allman plays an integral role here as “Dime” opens with a plaintive Hammond B-3 that gives way to the purest Blues guitar obbligato heard on record courtesy of Allman. An inspired Scaggs vocal takes centre stage until the 7’48” mark. From there Allman alters the mood; taking the number into another realm by continually increasing the tempo and intensity, and powering what began as a burning slow Blues into a full force gale of an all stops out guitar / horns jam. And yes, the performance is that dramatic!
(As a sidebar, “Loan Me A Dime” was marked with controversy when Boz originally took songwriting credit on the song thinking that it was Public Domain, a traditional Blues song passed on from artist to artist. Accordingly, as an accepted practice, he would be allowed the leeway to take credit for the song based on a unique arrangement of the tune. Boz’s history with “Dime” was that he had initially heard it as a staple of The Elvin Bishop Band’s live shows and got the lyrics from Jo Baker, Bishop’s lead singer over the phone in the studio before committing the number to tape. He apparently didn’t know that the song was originally written and recorded by Fenton Robinson. When made aware, the situation was rectified with Robinson receiving due credit going forward. Check out Fenton’s fine version on the Alligator release Somebody Loan Me A Dime.)
Despite great reviews found in major publications and the Rock press, the album sold only 20,000 copies on its initial release – a disappointment for all parties involved. The major reason for the poor showing was a direct result of Wenner refusing Wexler’s demand to shut down the project when Wenner continued to exceed the budget. In response Wexler pulled all promotional support. As exceptional as the recording was, it couldn’t succeed on its own merit without Atlantic’s marketing dollars. The album continues to sell with several re-issues on CD. And it was named as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time”.
Somewhat disenchanted with the whole experience, Scaggs took a step back and decided to “just hang out down south for a spell”. He sent for his future wife, Carmella Storniola, to join him, and among other activities, was content to just jam with local musicians. The inactivity coupled with the failure of Boz Scaggs caused Atlantic to drop him from their roster. Boz would later resurface as a member of Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth back in San Francisco, both recording and performing with the band on local gigs.
Columbia Records came calling about a year later with the offer of a multi album contract. A wary Scaggs was reassured after discussing the deal with Steve Miller, and accepted the proposal that would result in Boz recording 8 studio albums on the Columbia label over the next 17 years on the road to mainstream stardom.
Scaggs’ first move was to assemble a working band that would also double as a recording ensemble. Influenced by Ray Charles’ and B.B. King’s various bands as well as Texas compatriot Doug Sahm’s Honky Blues Band, Boz added 3 horns to the line-up. To ensure continuity he put them on a “very good” salary. Notable in his 7 piece backing band were inventive drummer George Rains, keyboard maestro Joachim Young, and Bay area session sax man Mel Martin. The band would record 2 albums in year one, (1971), of the contract showcasing Boz’s fine T-Bone Walker influenced guitar playing in addition to his always evocative vocals. Of particular interest is a personal favourite, Boz Scaggs & Band, that was cut in England with Glyn Johns, (Steve Miller Band, Beatles, Rolling Stones etc.), in the producer’s chair.
In 1974, Boz changed the course of his career and his fortunes by taking his Blues and R&B in another direction with the recording of Slow Dancer. He selected Motown producer Johnny Bristol to helm the project, and, for all intents and purposes, left the entire process in Bristol’s hands. Boz barely touched the guitar as Bristol – who had a hand in writing half of the album’s output – assembled a recording crew of primarily Motown session musicians. After sketching out the songs, Bristol oversaw the recording of the backing tracks that were then provided to Boz to overlay vocals. And Bristol’s involvement didn’t end there. A reputed task master and perfectionist when it came to vocals, he pushed Scaggs to the limit and had him continually singing at the top of his range. It was said that at one point when Bristol wasn’t happy with what Boz was giving him on “Sail On White Moon” that he brought one of Boz’s idols, Smokey Robinson, into the session to provide inspiration (read: challenge him).
In the end, Slow Dancer proved to be a game changer; providing Scaggs’ with his first Gold album while effectively altering his sound, and forever changing the way that Boz made records going forward. Boz’s Blue Eyed Soul offerings were a thing of the past, replaced with gritty inner city R&B. Highlights are many; check out “Angel Lady (Come Just In Time)”, “There Is Someone Else”, and “I Got Your Number” for proof. All are representative of a new found urgency evident on the entire record.
With Slow Dancer paving the way, Boz had found a new formula for making records. He viewed his new approach to singing – brought to light by Johnny Bristol – as a perfect match for a more polished uptown brand of R&B. And, much the same as on Slow Dancer, he sought to concentrate on vocals and pick up the guitar only occasionally. (Reflecting on his guitar playing during this period Boz noted that he left the guitar responsibilities in the hands of more accomplished / expert players sensing “All I do is play Blues guitar.”)
The first point of business was to find a producer who shared his vision and had deep roots in Urban R&B. The criteria as stated pointed him in the direction of Joe Wissert who had worked extensively with Earth Wind & Fire. Next on the to-do list was a plan of putting together a studio band centred on using Jim Keltner on drums. But Keltner, a highly in demand session drummer, unfortunately wasn’t available for the scheduled recording dates. All was not lost however, when Keltner suggested drummer Jeff Porcaro and his trio that included David Hungate on bass, and David Paich, (who had fresh arrangement ideas), on various keyboards. The trio, (all just 21 years old), had been playing together since high school, had positioned themselves as a rhythm section for hire, and had played on several Steely Dan albums. (Note: the trio would go on to form Toto after the sessions). They proved crucial to the success of Silk Degrees, especially Paich who was instrumental in helping Boz achieve his objectives. Paich, who had a hand in writing 6 of the 10 tracks and arrangements on all the tracks, said of Boz: “He was Texas Pop / Blues and I came in and we added the urban thing”.In turn, after the experience of working with Paich, Boz said of him: “I still credit him with being the single most important individual in my entire career”.
The result was Boz’s best selling album to date, (5 million units and counting), on a seamless set of songs that included Scaggs’ first Top 40 hit (“It’s Over”), and a song that would become synonymous with Scaggs (“Lowdown”). In fact, “Lowdown” earned Boz special recognition as the first white artist to win a Grammy Award for “Best R&B Song” while landing at # 3 on the Pop charts. Boz regards “Lowdown” “as the most important (song) in my repertoire”. With “Lowdown” as the catalyst, Silk Degrees stayed on the charts for an astounding 115 weeks and vaulted Boz Scaggs into the mainstream!
Boz’s next couple of albums, Down Two Then Left and Middle Man, although outstanding in their own right and including some fine moments, paled in comparison to Silk Degrees. But they also benefitted from Silk Degrees’ halo effect and they too – along with the compilation, Hits – went platinum.
The albums also opened the door to huge worldwide tours with no end seemingly in sight. That is until, in 1981, when Boz Scaggs simply stopped everything. Likening his career to a runaway train, Scaggs made the decision to hop off and let that train continue on without him. After initially sitting in with local bands at home in San Francisco, (e.g. for a short period he took Michael Bloomfield’s place in his band after Bloomfield had passed), he didn’t pick up his guitar for a number of years. Uninspired, he looked to do other things of interest including raising his two sons. No doubt both his record company, Columbia, and his legion of fans felt like they were left in the lurch. But Scaggs was resolute and he refused to talk about his decision and reasons thereof in any great detail.
Undoubtedly with Columbia’s prodding, Boz released a comeback album Other Roads in 1988. Mired by 70’s era production values on a number of different styled entries, and although containing the hit “Heart Of Mine”, the release died on the vine and was quickly forgotten. Adding to the frustration was that Columbia refused Boz’s first submission because they “didn’t hear any hits”, and demanded that he re-cut the entire album. The late musician / poet Jim Carroll, who co-wrote some of the songs with Boz, remarked at the time of his disbelief of Columbia’s treatment of an artist of Boz’s stature. Surely, a divorce was in the offing.
The release of Other Roads proved to be a false start on the comeback trail. Although Boz left no doubt that his skill set was still intact in a relatively few number of dates and an outstanding appearance on David Sanborn’s nationally televised “Night Music” there were no plans in place to either enter the studio or hit the road in a significant way.
With the exception of appearing with Donald Fagen’s NY Rock & Soul Revue, the situation remained status quo for 6 years. In 1994, Boz was without a label, when he cut a deal with Virgin that included full artistic control. Using his home studio, and with the help of ex Beach Boys and Bonnie Raitt drummer Ricky Fataar, Boz delivered Some Change, an album cited by a number of critics as his best since Silk Degrees. Other than selected guest musicians like Booker T. Jones on Hammond B-3 and Fred Tackett on guitar, Scaggs and Fataar covered all the instrumentation on 10 Scaggs compositions. For his part, Boz handled all the vocal chores and all the guitars. His guitar playing is a highlight and the overall product, for lack of a better description, paints Boz as a true professional on a set of honest heartfelt songs. Highlights include the Rockabilly vibe of “You Got My Letter”, the Texas Blues of “Some Change”, and the pain and longing of “Lost It”. Some Change stated emphatically that Boz was indeed back, and was still a force to be reckoned with.
Three years later Scaggs would embark on what he referred to as “part two of my life and my career”. With Virgin, Boz was of the mind that “I was able to pick things I reallywanted to do, things that mattered to me on a purely musical basis”. And what Boz wanted to do was an album that paid homage to his musical heroes resulting in the Grammy Award nominated Come On Home. A recording that many long time fans were waiting for, the self produced Come On Home featured covers by the likes of Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker interspersed with Scaggs originals that had an affinity with his chosen remakes. Not only was the recording successful commercially, it also served as a re-kindling of Boz’s love of playing the guitar as well as a reminder of why he got involved in the business in the first place – the music! A natural progression was to hit the road which Boz did in support of the album and has continued to do so on a regular basis ever since.
In the midst of his various tours Boz found time to continue to release meaningful music. His next full scale project, Dig, ranks with Scaggs’ very best work. It’s an album that Scaggs refers to as “the forgotten album” due to the unfortunate circumstance of being released on 9/11. Accordingly, all of Virgin’s promotional efforts went by the wayside. And subsequently, in relative terms, no one heard the album.
And Dig is definitely worth hearing and delving into if for no other reason than the recording reunited Boz with David Paich for somewhat of a return to Silk Degrees. With its’ heavy emphasis on modern day production values and instrumentation, Scaggs, Paich, and guitar stalwart Danny Kortchmar presented an updated, mature set of R&B and Blues inflected numbers. Paich and Kortchmar tag team on the production duties on a recording that tends at times to be unsettling in the raw emotion put forward. Even the joyous opener “Payday” or the beautiful southern ode “Sarah” can’t dispel the underlying feeling of darkness, of a heavy weight on your shoulders. Paramount in conveying the apparent uneasiness are “I Just Go”, “Desire” and “King Of El Paso”. In all, a stunning piece of work.
Boz chose to take a side road for his next projects. He has always viewed himself as a singer above all else; and, as such, it’s somewhat fitting that he recorded a couple of albums that focus on vocals with a nod to the Great American Song Book and Jazz vocal varieties. Both But Beautiful and Speak Low were cut with a small combo and stand as an exercise in taste and restraint while bringing to the fore Boz’s superb interpretive skills. Of the two, Speak Low fared the best with convincing readings of Chet Baker’s “She Was Too Good To Me”, Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, and, what would fit perfectly as part of Scaggs’ repertoire going forward, Nancy Wilson’s “Save Your Love For Me”.
It’s left to speculation if it was conscious decision on Scaggs’ part to take his interpretive skills and apply them to selections from his own backyard of Blues and R&B but his next move was just that. His last 3 albums: Memphis, A Fool To Care, and Out Of The Blues form a trilogy celebrating American Roots Music. With a few exceptions, they are cover albums similar in effect to Come On Home. And, like Come On Home, the covers display sufficient reverence to the originals but are performed with appropriate latitude thereby allowing them room to breathe.
Memphis and A Fool To Care are the most intimate of the three with shades of Al Green permeating throughout – especially on the ballads like The Spinner’s “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, The Impressions’ “I’m So Proud”, and a slowed down reading of Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind”. Like everything that Scaggs touches, no one is in a hurry here as he and his backing musicians lay down a seductive, textured, lazy groove.
Out Of The Blues demands to be taken at face value – this is the Blues y’all, Boz Scaggs style. And, as adept as Scaggs is in his handling of various forms of R&B and Soul, it’s evident on this release that the Blues is where Boz’s spirit truly lies. On Out Of The Blues he wraps a world weary voice around works by Jimmy Reed (“Down In Virginia”), Magic Sam (“I’ve Just Got To Know”) and Applejack Walroth’s “Radiator 110”. He even turns a non-Blues entry, one of Neil Young’s best mood pieces – the album’s focal point “On The Beach” – into a Blues oriented song. Out Of The Blues hit the top of the Blues chart, stayed in the Top Ten for 6 months, and stands as the best of, and a fitting end, to the trilogy.
With Out Of The Blues Scaggs’ career has come full circle, and it’s been quite a varied Roots oriented ride. He’s made all the stops on that journey, stated his business eloquently, and moved on to the next destination. At every juncture he’s been faithful to his musical instincts that have more than served him well.
All things considered, Boz Scaggs has proven to be a genuine musical treasure.
A Boz Scaggs Playlist
Waiting For A Train
Loan Me A Dime
We Were Always Sweethearts
You’re So Good
You Make It So Hard
I Got Your Number
Gimme The Goods
Breakdown Dead Ahead
You Got My Letter
It All Went Down The Drain
Come On Home
King Of El Paso
Save Your Love For Me
Gone Baby Gone
Hell To Pay (featuring Bonnie Raitt, vocals & slide guitar)
“He was the thread that connected Willie Dixon and Mark Twain”
Joe Henry, producer of Mose Allison’s last studio recording Way Of The World
Renowned pianist, singer, and sometime trumpeter Mose Allison’s twin leanings of Blues and Jazz defy categorization. It’s a fact that has negatively impacted both his celebrity and commercial success with North American music buyers. And Mose himself added to the ambiguity by declaring that he never stopped seeing himself as a Jazz musician stating: “My definition of Jazz is music that’s felt, thought, and performed simultaneously. And that’s what I’m looking for every night”. And he immediately followed that assertion with “Good Country Blues is the basis of my thing and always be.” All in all, Mose Allison developed his own unique style of expertly mixing Country Blues, Jazz Swing, and Bebop, with shades of Classical. No mean feat to say the least.
Although he didn’t realize significant prosperity in a career spanning sixty plus years and some fifty releases, his influence wasn’t and isn’t lost on his peers. His songs have been covered by a diverse set of artists including Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, The Who, The Clash, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, Elvis Costello, Robert Palmer, and Van Morrison. In fact, Morrison, (joined by fellow musicians and fans Georgie Fame and Ben Sidran), cut a full album in tribute to the man, Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison. Among the many accolades, storied Blues songsmith Willie Dixon called him “A beautiful musician”, and Sonny Boy Williamson told him “Mose, you got a good thing goin’”. Lastly, Bonnie Raitt summed it up by saying: “I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or The Staple Singers or the great Blues and Jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries”.
Make no mistake, there’s sufficient substance in Mose Allison both personally and musically to support such pronouncements. Always contending that he was going to make a living in music, Mose’s first introduction was his father’s stride piano playing at home. Although not classically trained, his father displayed an intuitive natural Kansas City based style that left quite an impression on young Mose. The musical education continued later in what could be found on the jukebox at the family owned service station in his native home – the village of Tippo Mississippi.
The story begins when Mose John Allsion was born in the Mississippi Delta on his grandfather’s farm in Tallahatchie County Mississippi, near the village of Tippo on November 11, 1927. Tippo is located inside the eastern rim of the Mississippi Delta in what was a predominantly Black corner of the U.S. cotton farming industry; about 40 miles south east of Clarksdale. His father took over ownership of the farm plus the family general store and service station. His mother, a local school teacher, set up piano lessons for Mose, (when he was five years old), and passed on a love of literature that would significantly influence his songwriting later on.
As a boy, Mose picked and chopped cotton, cut and hauled hay; and while working at the general store would steal away to the service station where he got his first taste of Blues, Boogie Woogie, and Jazz on the jukebox. He recalled that 60% of the jukebox fare was Country Blues and the remainder the big band sounds of Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. While he loved all that he heard, he gravitated to the Blues of Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, and Big Bill Broonzy.
The sounds that Mose heard on the jukebox left a permanent imprint. Mose, tired of the formal piano lessons, decided to totally give up on them when he found he could pick out Blues and Boogie tunes by ear. He continued honing his keyboard skills citing Nat King Cole as his main influence on piano (and later as a vocal model).
In high school Allison switched to trumpet and dove so deeply into the instrument that he now considered himself primarily a trumpet player; only playing piano “now and then”. That being the case, Mose found new heroes, as he sought to emulate Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Buck Clayton (of Count Basie’s band), and Louis Armstrong. Allison was especially attracted to Armstrong’s natural improvisational skills.
After spending a year at The University Of Mississippi, (studying Chemical Engineering), Allison joined the army in 1946. Among the usual military activities, Mose played trumpet with the army band in Colorado Springs. He also took advantage of a number of opportunities to sit in with accomplished musicians, including doing so on a memorable night with Roy Eldridge. The jamming proved crucial to Allison’s budding success not only at this juncture but throughout his early career. He was grateful to the many musicians that allowed him to sit in. As a general statement, they were all very welcoming; recognizing his passion and musicianship as Mose steadily learned from the experience.
The other major benefit from his army stay – one that would have a profound effect on his on-going style and creativity both on trumpet and piano – was Mose hearing and falling in love with Bebop. Upon finishing his army stint and returning to the U. Of Mississippi (to study Economics), Mose had this to say: “I left Ole Miss as a naïve provincial, and when I returned I was a fledgling hipster. When I went back to Ole Miss after the army I had become a Bebop fanatic. Bebop was my crusade. Dizzy Gillespie was my hero, and I wrote arrangements for the dance band which were not particularly well received by the student body”.
Allison ended his full time education a second time, to take a 6 night a week job playing piano and singing in a cocktail lounge near Lake Charles Louisiana. Citing that he couldn’t express his ideas as readily on trumpet, Allison moved to piano, for all intents and purposes, on a full time basis. And, with the thought of taking advantage of all potential work possibilities, he noted that “piano players were hired before they hire trumpet players”.
Now fronting a trio, (backed by a rhythm section of bass and drums, a preferred line-up that Mose would continue to use in live performance going forward), he began branching out playing clubs in the southeast and as far north as Denver. Hearing about a thriving Jazz scene in New York it wasn’t long before Mose decided to try his luck and move there on his own in 1951. After a year of scuffling, and being left disillusioned with the lack of available work, Allison decided to return to school – this time he attended classes at Louisiana State University where he graduated in English and Philosophy.
In the next few years Allison’s style and approach started to evolve. He drew on his influences to date fusing the rural Blues of his youth with Jazz intonations coupled with an understated vocal style influenced by Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown, and his first idol, Nat King Cole. In 1956, at the age of 29, Mose pronounced himself ready to tackle the Big Apple once again.
This time circumstances proved to be more accommodating thanks to the help and guidance of saxophonist, composer, and arranger Al Cohn. Cohn, (two years Mose’s senior), provided encouragement, work, and recording dates. Specifically, Mose would go on to play as an accompanist and record with Cohn along with other celebrated saxmen like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims. (As a sideman, Allison recorded 4 albums with Cohn and 1 with Getz).
Mose soaked up all that New York had to offer musically while the big city life had a profound effect on his songwriting. More on that later, but suffice to say that his original songs provided a forum for Mose’s Southern sensibilities and displayed acute observations of the way that the world works, (and sometimes doesn’t). With his trio, Mose played all the prestigious night spots: Birdland, The Jazz Gallery, The Half Note, and The Village Gate. His blend of downhome Blues and uptown Bop had a tendency to raise more than a few eyebrows. Unfazed, Mose told a Downbeat interviewer that “In the South I’m considered an advanced bebop type. In New York I’m considered a Country-Folk type. Actually, I don’t think I’m either. Maybe I’m a little of both”.
In 1957 Mose made his solo recording debut on the Prestige label. In what would be his first of 6 releases for Prestige, Back Country Suite (For Piano, Bass, and Drums), was met with critical acclaim. The album, conjuring up the feel of the Mississippi Delta, was primarily an instrumental recording that featured 2 vocal tracks: a cover of Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack” and Mose’s own “Blues” (AKA “Young Man Blues”). Those tracks stood in stark contrast to the rest of the release in that they first brought to light Mose’s conversational tone of voice that differed greatly from Blues shouters of the day. ”Blues” also brought to bear the possibilities of a white voice artistically exploring Black material, thereby putting his own spin on the genre. On that topic, Mose would say in an interview that in sharing day to day commonalities with African Americans, he grew up unaware that whites don’t play Blues. And the white imitating Black viewpoint obviously hit a nerve with Allison because later in his career he would record “Ever Since I Stole The Blues” with the lyrics; “Well the Blues police from down in Dixieland / Tried to catch me with the goods in hand / Ever since the white boy stole the Blues”. Further on the subject, Mose noted: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or white. What matters is whether you’re good”.
Allison continued to include vocals on the remaining albums in Allison’s Prestige catalogue both Blues and otherwise. Mose did so reasoning “That’s what record companies wanted; they wanted songs with words”. (Noted vocal performances from this time period are Mose’s handling of Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and his re-working of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm” depicting the rough conditions in the maximum security prison farm also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary).
Years later when recalling his time at Prestige, Allison said that his last recording for the label, 1960’s primarily instrumental Transformation Of Hiram Brown would always hold a special place: “It didn’t get much attention, but I think it’s the best I’ve ever done as far as sustained performance and the tunes themselves are concerned”.
After a less than satisfying 2 year / 4 release stint at Columbia Records, Allison came into his own for a career defining tenure at Atlantic Records. Over the course of 14 years (’62 – ’76) and 14 releases, primarily under the guidance of Nesuhi Ertegun, the case could be made that some of his best and most memorable songs were written and recorded while at Atlantic. It was during this period that Allison started putting more emphasis on songwriting and vocals on topics that ranged from personal to worldly. Titles like “I Don’t Worry About A Thing”, “Your Mind Is On Vacation”, “If You’re Goin’ To The City”, “Stop This World”, “Don’t Forget To Smile”, “Your Molecular Structure”, “Night Club”, and “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy” all share a similarity. That is, they are plain spoken observant songs full of insight and humour delivered with a clear voice complete with an easy Blues inflection reflecting his rural Mississippi upbringing.
While he enjoyed his time at Atlantic and his relationship with Nesuhi Ertegun, he, at times, was called upon to defend his musical integrity; (a common occurrence throughout Allison’s career). Case in point was his relationship with Jerry Wexler at a time when Wex had found a successful formula of sending artists to different southern locales, (e.g. Muscle Shoals AL), and delivering hit records. Mose said: “He (Wexler) wanted me to go down to Mississippi and play with bands that Atlantic Records had down there and play more popular stuff. I didn’t want to do it. There were a lot of suggestions I didn’t take”.
Mose’s term at Atlantic ended with a 1976 release Your Mind Is On Vacation that included viable remakes from his Atlantic catalogue including the title cut. The release also reunited Mose with Al Cohn who played on the session.
Mose would leave Atlantic to record for Elektra and Blue Note among others with some fine moments including Middle Class White Boy on Elektra, (“I’m a middle class whiteboy just tryin’ to have some fun”). But Mose found the financial return on his recorded work so minimal that by the 90’s he decided to quit recording and devoted his time and effort to touring, (which he had been doing extensively throughout his career). And he continued to tour until 2012 when at 85 years of age decided to retire from live performances.
Mose Allison died on November 15, 2016 of natural causes at 89 years of age at home in Hilton Head S.C. He left behind a legacy and a treasure-trove of inspirational music. It could rightfully be said that wide acceptance eluded him because he didn’t appear serious enough for Jazzers and too heavy for Blues followers. I venture that in Mose’s words, his take on the subject might be:
If this life is driving You to drink You sit around and wondering Just what to think Well I got some consolation I’ll give it to you If I might Well I don’t worry bout a thing Cause I know nothings gonna be alright
You know this world is just one big Trouble spot because Some have plenty and Some have not You know I used to be trouble but I finally Saw the light Now I don’t worry bout a thing Cause I know nothings gonna be alright
Don’t waste your time trying to Be a go getter Things will get worse before they Get any better You know there’s always somebody playing with Dynamite But I don’t worry about a thing Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright
In the mid 70’s WBLS (NYC) Disc Jockey and Program Director Frankie Crocker established a name to encompass the broad mix of decidedly Black music that he was playing. He referred to the collection of the various genres including R&B, Hip Hop, Disco, and Rap as Urban Contemporary. And he did so with the objective of not only branding the wide pallet of styles, but also to help in providing a sense of empowerment for both the artists and the station’s predominantly Black, and to a lesser extent Hispanic, listeners.
Urban Contemporary – aided with Disco in its heyday – helped Black music cross over into the mainstream. It served its purpose as the recording stars of the day, not to mention fashion trends, were indeed heavily weighted towards or were Black oriented. Artists such as Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Boney M., Chic, Thelma Houston, and Sister Sledge thrived. And TV shows like Soul Train and films like Saturday Night Fever contributed to Disco’s mainstream popularity.
With Disco waning in the late 70’s, (and meeting the end of its popularity at the close of the decade), like other Black radio stations across the country, WBLS faced the uncertainty of continued mainstream acceptance as advertising dollars took a downturn. Without the hook of Disco, advertisers felt that “Black Radio” would not reach a wide enough audience and tended to pull back. A reset was warranted; the result of which would eclipse the success of Disco and prove to be significantly more sustainable.
Urban Contemporary evolved to one of a rediscovery of the richness of Soul vocal styling that predominantly revisited the R&B ballad tradition. Although still providing room for up tempo funky dance tracks, the recast Urban Contemporary – alternately called Quiet Storm – was characterized by radio friendly production and a controlled soulfulness in well crafted vocals displaying an upmarket, highly emotional mood in mainly romantic ballads (slow jams). Further, as a means of sharpening a radio format judged to attract a wider audience, and in turn, make white advertisers more comfortable in parting with their advertising dollars, a balance was struck. That is, Program Directors sought selections that weren’t as light as Motown or Pop, (thus adding more emotional weight for its listeners), but without the grit that Southern Soul offered, (because it might be deemed “too Black” for the mass consumption). Providing and defining this relaxed romantic form of R&B were Black artists with crossover appeal.
Prominent in this set of artists, among others, were Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie / The Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, Freddie Jackson, and Jeffrey Osborne – but no one more so than Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. Based on their respective resumes and their highly emotive, romantic brand of R&B, they stand as the undisputed King and Queen of 80’s and 90’s Urban Soul.
In addition to their obvious commercial success, Vandross and Baker – whose paths intersected and who shared a commonality in their determination to manage not only their recordings but also their respective careers on their own terms – are known for their ability to convey the message with a true sense of commitment and emotion. With an unmannered approach, free of histrionics, in short, they made you believe. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.
Anita Denise Baker, born in Toledo Ohio on January 26, 1958, has proven to be one of the definitive Quiet Storm singers. Influenced by R&B, Jazz, Gospel, and Pop, Baker has earned her place in the upper echelon of romantic singers of her time.
In a 30 year solo recording career, (from 1983 through 2013), Baker has released 9 albums, (not including the best selling 2002 Rhino release Sweet Love The Very Best Of Anita Baker). Of those 9 albums, 5 went Platinum (a million units sold), and 2 went Gold (500,000 units sold). Add to that 8 Grammy Awards, 2 American Music Awards, 7 Soul Train Awards, a BET Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame; and it makes for quite a bio.
At this point it’s important to note Anita’s formative years because they played a significant role in her outlook on life while instilling a marked independence and work ethic. Her upbringing is somewhat murky, the details of which continued to haunt Anita through adulthood. Anita’s mother gave birth at 16, and sensing that she wasn’t equipped financially and psychologically to raise a child, left her in the care of a woman in Detroit, Mary Lewis. Lewis, variously described as a friend or relative became her foster mother and Anita, along with other foster siblings, remained in her care until she passed when Anita was 13. At this point Anita’s care was provided by her aunt, Lois Landry, (who Anita initially thought was her older adopted sister). Lois and her husband Walter would provide a stable environment while emphasizing hard work and religion. All set the stage for Anita to embark on a challenging but rewarding life in the music business.
It didn’t all come easy – it tested Anita’s resolve – in that there were some stutter steps before Anita’s career took flight. All started out promising enough with Baker, the product of Detroit’s inner city, inspired by her first influence Mahalia Jackson, singing (Gospel) in various churches at the age of 12. In an interview with the New York Times Baker was clear in the distinction that she sang in “little storefront churches, not big city churches”. She pointed out that it was important to note that storefront places of worship drew an older congregation of mostly Southern folk that were more likely to get involved vocally and fervently in the course of the service. In doing so, there was a certain spontaneity that Baker fed off of, (and not readily present in large established churches). Accordingly, the experience provided a bridge to R&B that led to her testing her chops in Detroit clubs at 16.
While continuing to make live statements singing Gospel and R&B, Anita started paying closer attention to music that was being played around the house – namely, her mother, (aunt), played artists like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald. Anita recalls: “I grew up singing along with that music without really knowing what it was”. It was Jazz, and Baker had discovered her idol, Sarah Vaughan, that she reveres to present day. A contralto like Vaughan, Anita told a Rolling Stone interviewer that her dream was to perform songs associated with Vaughan in a simple setting – sitting on a stool accompanied only by a piano. It was that intimacy that Baker successfully injected into her songs throughout her career.
Baker’s career started when she was 17. It was at this time that she was approached by band leader David Washington to audition for his Funk band Chapter 8. The band recorded one, (self titled), album on the independent Ariola label with Anita as the lead voice. Before things could really get started for Baker, Arista bought Ariola and dropped the band because they didn’t think that Baker possessed “star power”.
Baker’s response to this first bump in the road was to step away while she planned her next move. Anita – only 21 at this time – returned to Detroit working at various jobs, (including waiting tables and receptionist), while working local clubs for the next 3 years. It wasn’t long before another opportunity presented itself. A former Ariola associate convinced Baker to start a solo career on his Beverley Glen label that led to her first solo release, TheSongstress, that sold a more than respectable 300,000 copies and yielded 4 singles including Anita’s first Top Ten single, “Angel”, that placed # 5 on the R&B chart.
But all was not roses as Anita had some differences with the Beverley Glen label. Namely, she felt that she should have more of a voice in the creative process, questioned the royalty payments that she had received for TheSongstress, and was of the opinion that she was being punished for her push back when the label dragged their feet on the follow-up to TheSongstress. Subsequently, Baker won a breach of contract settlement that made her a free agent. (It wouldn’t be the first time that she turned to the courts to arbitrate matters).
Emboldened by the success of TheSongstress, and her new found freedom, Baker agreed to a contract with Elektra with the stipulation that she be given complete control of the entire recording process. It should be rightfully added that, in an act of self reliance, Baker agreed to foot the bill for any expenses that exceeded the agreed upon budget. It may have been viewed as a gamble by a relatively obscure artist but it paid off as Baker’s breakthrough album Rapture was released in 1986, selling 8 million copies. The album also yielded her first Pop hit (# 8 “Sweet Love”) among 5 top selling singles, and earned Baker 2 Grammy Awards. Working with Chapter 8 associate Michael J. Powell, who played guitar on the session, Baker contributed 3 songs including a co-write on “Sweet Love”. Powell and Baker meticulously picked songs that complemented Baker’s smooth romantic Jazz flavoured stylings and added to the overall smoldering mood of the album.
From there Anita could do wrong as she went on to release a string of million selling albums. Of special mention is the Rapture follow-up Giving You the Best I Got (1988) that topped the Billboard charts, sold 5 million copies, garnered 3 Grammys, and included the title track that topped both the R&B and Contemporary charts on route to being Anita’s most successful single (# 3 on the Billboard charts).
Anita followed up the release with a much anticipated 3 month tour with Luther Vandross that played to packed houses. Unfortunately the two mega stars could not co-exist without friction. The story goes that what started as a disagreement over Anita performing a Luther song in her show resulted in the two not speaking by the tour’s end. Apparently, Anita had planned to perform Luther’s biggest selling hit to date “Stop To Love” in her portion of the show reasoning that it had become a staple of her live shows for the past couple of years, and that she would do it in tribute to Luther. Luther countered that the only way that he would allow her to sing the song would be as a duet with him, which Anita refused to do.
The two made amends years later and it was also years later that Anita revealed in an interview that she wasn’t happy that she and Luther weren’t able to work through their differences saying “I just wish that Luther and I had talked face to face, just once; we didn’t. We should have talked instead of our managers and promoters talking…”
At the end of 1991 Anita took a break from the business to start a family. Without missing a beat, in 1994, Anita returned to the charts with her fifth album Rhythm Of Love featuring the Top 40 hit “Body And Soul”. Anita continued to be prolific with top selling albums including her last three on Blue Note – 2013’s Only Forever was the last album she recorded although she continued with live performances.
In January 2017 Anita Baker surprisingly announced her retirement on social media, opting to turn her attention to her family and raising her two boys. In another surprise, Baker, again on social media, announced plans for a farewell tour that, outside of playing a number of 2019 Las Vegas dates, apparently failed to materialize.
Anita Baker made news once again this past year urging fans to not stream her 5 Elektra albums because she wasn’t earning anything from them. The reason being that Elektra refused to release the rights to the masters that were rightfully hers. (After 30 years, ownership of masters should legally revert to the artist but Elektra was dragging their feet in honouring the commitment). Baker subsequently won a court battle over ownership of her master recordings of: The Songstress (that Elektra bought from Beverley Glen), Rapture, Giving You The Best I Got, Compositions, and Rhythm Of Love.
At this writing Anita Baker is 63 years old and, most probably, is still in command of her powerful emotional delivery. We can only hope that she returns with her sophisticated brand of smooth and romantic Soul and reaffirms her appropriate place among the stars.
Luther Vandross hit the charts as a solo artist in 1981 but was hardly a newcomer per se. That is, before making his solo debut Luther formed or joined a number of groups, wrote songs for other artists, provided vocal arrangements and background vocals for various artists, and wrote and performed a number of commercial jingles among other endeavours. Also, of note, in 1972 – at 21 years of age – Luther wrote “Everybody Rejoice” for the Broadway musical The Whiz.
Once established, Luther’s career was an unchained locomotive gaining momentum year by year, album by album, live performance by live performance with no foreseen end in sight. His accomplishments over the course of that career were many:
record sales of over 35 million
14 studio albums that went either platinum or double platinum
8 of his albums hit # 1 R&B (including a string of 7 consecutive albums)
8 Grammy Awards (among 33 nominations)
5 American Music Awards
5 Soul Train Awards
a Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame
placed 10th in the Rolling Stone’s R&B / Soul Singers Of All-Time
Woah! Through it all he became known for a collection of timeless songs that made Luther a household name.
It started early for Luther Ronzoni Vandross (April 20, 1951 – July 1, 2005) who was born in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan NYC into a musical family. (His father was a singer and upholsterer and his older sister Patricia was a member of the Doo-Wop group, The Crests, who had the 1958 hit “16 Candles”). Luther, the youngest of 4 children, started to play the piano at 3 years of age and at 13 decided to become a singer after seeing Dionne Warwick sing the Bacharach / David songbook at The Fox Theatre.
It wouldn’t be his last encounter with Warwick, who Luther cited as an inspiration alongside Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Aretha Franklin. They would become close friends and record together (the 1983 duet “How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye”). And, although a variety of male voices provided motivation as pure singers, it was the female singers that resonated with Luther. In an answer to an interview question as to his partiality to the ladies, Luther responded “The female voice to me is just special, and women’s interpretive values seam wider, less restricted”. Admittedly a preconceived notion, but it could very well be that the viewpoint as stated ignited Luther’s trademark of stretching a line or fragment of a verse, and turning it inside out while coaxing all of the passion possible out of a lyric. (And it can definitely be said that Luther took his onstage diva persona, including the seemingly countless costume changes between songs, from the women).
Luther was part of a high school crowd that was more interested in hanging out in hallways singing Doo-Wop than their studies. As a teen he performed at various amateur nights and appeared in several episodes of the first season of Sesame Street at 18. But school held no interest although Luther did attend the University Of Western Michigan for one year before turning his attention totally to music. He found it tough sledding and worked a variety of day jobs in the quest of realizing his dreams.
Doors started to open for Luther when an old friend, Carlos Alomar, who happened to be playing guitar for David Bowie, invited him to the Fame sessions. Introduced to Bowie as a singer, Luther was given an impromptu audition that subsequently not only led to Luther singing on the album but doing the vocal arrangements as well. In addition Luther was also part of Bowie’s band on the Fame promotional tour. And, it didn’t stop there. After the tour, Bowie introduced Luther to Bette Midler; a move that opened the floodgates to Luther providing background vocals for a slew of high profile artists.
The impact of working with Bowie wasn’t lost on Luther who, when asked in an interview if Bowie had helped him in the beginning, replied: “No; David Bowie started my career. Flat out. Absolutely. I had never been out of New York City before Bowie took me out on the road with him. I was still living with my mother before Bowie took me out on the road with him”.
Of the many artists for whom Luther provided backing vocal, key to Luther’s fledgling career was Roberta Flack. It was Flack who, while he was in her touring band, urged him to launch a solo career. Luther certainly aspired to do just that but saw a couple of barriers preventing him from following through. Part of the problem, as Luther saw it was that Disco was permeating the airwaves and he didn’t think his poetic, more lyrical approach would find acceptance with either record companies or the record buying public. The other problem that prevented Luther from getting a solo contract was his insistence of having complete control of the recording process.
Luther’s solution was to use the money from his songwriting efforts to buy studio time, hire musicians to his liking (including Marcus Miller on bass and Nat Adderley Jr, on keys and musical arrangements), and add his own compositions and multi-faceted vocals to the mix. He presented the collection of songs to Epic who gave him a contract. The assortment of songs was later released as Luther’s debut album, 1981’s Never Too Much that sold over a million copies and earned Luther a Grammy nomination.
Never Too Much is a “perfect” album. Not only does it contain some of Luther’s very best songs, those songs are presented in impeccable sequencing. Bracketed by the popping title cut and Bacharach – David / Warwick’s “A House Is Not A Home” that Luther stretches to more than 7 minutes in an emotional tour de force; there isn’t weak cut on the release. (And the album is a bass player’s dream because Marcus Miller’s instrument is prevalent throughout).
Not to downplay the rest of Luther’s increasingly stylized, (not to be confused with formulaic), outstanding catalogue in that they all have merit. But while they all have high points, with the possible exception of the Never Too Much follow-up, Forever, For Always, For Love, none are as cohesive and seamless as his debut.
All of Luther’s albums display a certain elegance in everything that Luther Vandross touches. It’s a product of precise orchestrated musicianship combined with Luther’s inventive vocal arrangements and topped with Luther’s silken lead voice. That voice normally a tenor, can drop to baritone, and slide up effortlessly to falsetto, (sometime all in the same song), making for as lasting dramatic result.
He can be as carnal as Marvin Gaye; but rather than replicate Gaye’s overt sexuality Luther tends to substitute a lyrical romantic sensuousness that achieves the same objective. In Luther’s words: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something than blatantly state it”.
And, although he comes from a different place than those that preceded him, Luther maintains the same old school Soul music values as an Otis Redding or a Jerry Butler when it comes to writing and performing songs that communicate deep feeling. Jerry Butler specifically bears mentioning because while Luther can handle any style of song with ease, it’s the slow jams in which Luther truly excels; thus bringing to mind Butler’s crooning balladry. (Think the pre Gamble / Huff Butler doing “Mr. Dream Merchant”). And, to his credit, Luther performs this magic on both his own compositions as well as selected covers to maximum effect. (For proof listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” from Luther’s album of covers Songs. Here he ups the emotive ante on Ritchie’s truly beautiful set of lyrics).
A number of Luther’s best songs, that speak for themselves, are included in the playlist following this article so I won’t dwell on them with the exception of commenting on Luther’s last album, the 2003 release Dance With My Father. The release reached # 1 on the Billboard charts and earned Luther 4 Grammys including best R&B album. The album is best remembered for the poignant title cut based on memories of Luther singing and dancing with the father that he lost to complications relating to diabetes when Luther was only 8 years old. Dance With My Father was also Luther’s last recording before suffering a debilitating stroke. Luther was in a coma for almost two months, was confined to a wheelchair, and for a time was unable to speak or sing.
It must be said that amid all the attention and glamour, that Luther Vandross, in his private life, was a lonely man. Although the cognoscenti knew that Luther was gay; it was a well-guarded secret not only by Luther himself but also by his protective friends and admirers. Luther was fearful of coming out because he didn’t want to disappoint his fans, and he was afraid that doing so would cause his mother more pain and a continuing sense of loss. (Luther was her only surviving child). Accordingly, Luther had no lasting relationships, and, without a “significant other” to lean on, sought to fill the void and combat life’s deficiencies by going on eating binges. Notorious for his love of extremely unhealthy food, Luther saw his weight balloon at various times to up to 350 pounds, (on a 6’ 3” frame). Luther, like his father and siblings, battled with diabetes and was hypertensive, both factors in the heart attack that took his life in 2005 at 54 years of age. (Luther never fully recovered from the effects of the stroke he suffered 2 years earlier).
Luther’s funeral was attended by Usher, Patti LaBelle, Ashford & Simpson, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Dionne Warwick among thousands in a capacity filled Riverside Church in Harlem. In addition to other performances Aretha sang “Amazing Grace” as if it was the last song that she would ever sing, and many of the singers in attendance joined together to sing a joyous version of one of Luther’s most beloved, (and appropriate), songs “Power Of Love / Love Power”.
An Anita Baker and Luther Vandross Selected Playlist
Angel – Anita Baker
No More Tears – Anita Baker
Sweet Love – Anita Baker
You Bring Me Joy – Anita Baker
Caught Up In The Rapture – Anita Baker
Same Ole Love – Anita Baker
Giving You The Best I Got – Anita Baker
Talk To Me – Anita Baker
Soul Inspiration – Anita Baker
Lonely – Anita Baker
Never Too Much – Luther Vandross
Don’t You Know That – Luther Vandross
A House Is Not A Home – Luther Vandross
Bad Boy / Having A Party – Luther Vandross
She Loves Me Back – Luther Vandross
Superstar / Until You Come Back To Me – Luther Vandross
“In interviews I hardly ever get asked about music. I do, however, get asked about the ‘Addicted to Love’ video and my suits on a daily basis”
Say the name Robert Palmer and it immediately sparks a mental picture and associated comments re: Palmer’s MTV defining video of his biggest hit, “Addicted To Love”. The video shows a relaxed Palmer nonchalantly singing the song while fronting a “band” of beautiful models in tight black dresses. While certainly a captivating image, and, what would be, for most artists, a crucial moment; for Palmer it proved to be a temporary stop, at a point in time, in his musical journey.
To fully understand, one has to accept the fact that Robert Palmer was the antithesis of a Rock star. That statement takes into account his interesting background, his reluctance to get caught up in the trappings of the Rock lifestyle, and, perhaps most importantly, his desire / willingness to grow and experiment with his musical choices in the face of a record buying public that doesn’t readily accept change.
Robert Allen Palmer, (1949 – 2003), was born in Batley, West Yorkshire England, and moved with his family when he was 3 months old to various locales as dictated by his father’s work as a British intelligence officer. That being the case, Palmer spent most his childhood years in Malta, Gibraltar, and Cyprus which provided him with more of a global view of matters. During this time Palmer claimed that he had never seen a movie or watched TV. Instead he spent his days “at the beach”, admitted to being a lonely child with few friends, and one whose time was primarily in the company of adults. Palmer also recalled his love of music being cultivated via his parents’ record collection, and nights spent falling asleep to the radio listening to the likes of Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Billie Holiday on American Forces Network. (Some years later, Robert would make his initial music purchase, the 1965 release, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. The album would serve as a foreshadowing of things to come while heavily influencing his singing style).
The family returned to the England in 1961, when Robert was 12 years old, settling in the resort town of Scarborough, on England’s North Sea coast. At that time young Robert was interested in many forms of exotic music that no doubt was influenced by his family’s various residences. Although music was a passion that led to Palmer singing with his first band The Mandrakes; he wasn’t convinced that music was, in fact, his true calling. That being the case, Palmer studied graphic design while pondering his future. It wasn’t long, however, after his move to London, that Palmer joined a 12 piece Jazz / Rock Fusion Band, Dada, that included singer Elke Brooks. Dada morphed into Vinegar Joe – a Rock / Blues outfit that found Robert playing rhythm guitar and sharing vocals with Brooks. Although the band built a reputation as an electrifying live act on the UK concert circuit, they couldn’t get any traction on their 3 albums, and disbanded in 1974, tired of the grind of the road.
That same year, Island Records, a British–Jamaican label founded by Chris Blackwell signed Palmer to a solo deal sensing that the eclectic Palmer would fit well with their varied roster that included Bob Marley & The Wailers and Toots & The Maytals. Over the course of his nine releases on the label, Palmer would prove to be a soulful singer with an amazing range and great taste. And, coupled with his dapper looks, a readymade persona.
The label would reap immediate benefits with Palmer releasing his outstanding debut, the New Orleans R&B soaked Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley. Backed primarily by The Meters and Little Feat’s Lowell George, Palmer proved himself to be a worthy torch bearer of cool and committed Blue-Eyed Soul at its finest. The album kicks off with a three song medley stringing together George’s “Sailing Shoes”, Palmer’s own “Hey Julia” and Allen Toussaint’s title song that sets the tone for one of the year’s best releases.
Using a similar “Sally” template as a base, his next release, 1975’s Pressure Drop, is cited by many, (this writer included), as Robert Palmer’s high water mark. Backed by Little Feat, (minus Lowell George), and the Muscle Shoals Horns, Palmer navigates through nine interrelated entries. Bookended by the gorgeous opener “Give Me An Inch” and the Sam Cooke inspired closer “Which Of Us Is The Fool”, the set proves that Palmer is rivalled only by Boz Scaggs in composed sophistication. But don’t be fooled; Palmer can get hot and steamy in a heartbeat. For proof just listen to Palmer’s “Fine Time” or the title cut, (a Toots & The Maytals’ cover that demonstrates Palmer’s affinity for Reggae).
The “Drop” follow-up, Some People Can Do What They Like, while not hitting the heights of either “Sally” or “Drop”, is a worthy descendant of “Drop” and forms the last part of a trilogy served up as a collection of Robert Palmer’s finest recordings. Maintaining the stylish sheen of “Drop” it counters by favouring a more of a stripped down approach on what can be rightly positioned as Palmer’s Funk album. He’s in fine voice throughout on a number of memorable musical moments. The album starts out with a mournful lost love appeal – “One Last Look”, a stylistic partner to “Give Me An Inch” written by Little Feat’s Billy Payne and his ex-wife Fran Tate – before getting to the business at hand. The business of Funk. Of note are Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” that, riding on a heavy bottom end, Palmer slows down to a strut; the slippery syncopation of Charles Wright & The 103rd Street Band’s “What Can You Bring Me”; and the frenetic heavily James Brown influenced title cut. “Some People” also displays, for the first time, Robert’s affection for rolling island rhythms by injecting the same into a cover off Don Covay’s “Have Mercy” and bringing Calypso into full view on Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”.
To provide clarity, the success of Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley / Pressure Drop / Some People Can Do What They Like was more of an artistic achievement than a revenue generating endeavour. Despite heavy FM play, these works didn’t raise Palmer much above cult status resulting in paydays that were likely acceptable at best. Unfortunately, subsequent releases failed to capitalize on the artistic promise of the so-called “trilogy”, primarily due to the Palmer’s wandering musical tastes. That is, every one of Palmer’s releases had something to recommend them but the various albums couldn’t be pigeonholed for a music buying public that demands such categorization. He still revisited the accepted R&B style that found favour going forward but there wasn’t enough to entice significant purchases resulting in a number of commercial failures.
All was not lost at this juncture in that, to his credit, Palmer was consistently a great live performer; sure to sell out wherever he played. He always surrounded himself with top flight talent that was well rehearsed. Much like one of his idols, Otis Redding, Palmer was known to be a task master who was a stickler for tempo. And, of course, adding to the cause was that Palmer was always in good voice, (the quality of which he attributed to chain smoking Dunhills and his fondness for single malt scotch).
The next significant album – once again not notable for marketable success but rather for a sudden change in direction – was the 1980 album Looking For Clues. The release has withstood the test of time, and, in retrospect, has its admirers lauding the release for the forward thinking venture into Technopop. But, at the time, such an unforeseen left turn was puzzling and surely looked like commercial suicide. In fact, in an interview with Toronto’s CITY TV’s “New Music”, Palmer was asked quite bluntly how he could turn his back on a successful formula to abruptly enter the New Wave / Techno arena. (Palmer had even shed his tailored suits for a chopped white sweatshirt bearing a UPC, track pants, and high top shoes in the accompanying videos and supporting tours). Palmer’s response was just as blunt. He remarked that he didn’t want to be typecast as “an R&B saviour”, and that he had varied musical interests which, as an evolving artist, he should be allowed the freedom to explore. He also said that he saw the move as creative growth and hoped that his fans accepted it as such, and would be willing to follow him. And, in saying that, the album does contain some outstanding tracks such as the churning title cut, “Johnny And Mary” that brings Palmer’s considerable songwriting talents to the fore, and a striking remake of the Beatles’ “Not A Second Time”.
More releases followed that once again failed to move the needle before Robert decided to be part of a side project with his friends John and Andy Taylor of Duran Duran. The band, The Power Station, maintained some Duran Duran like slickness, and added a crunching hard rock guitar sound rounded out with a pronounced bottom end. Palmer’s commanding vocals rode on top, and while matching the collective’s drive, added a dollop of soulfulness. (It should be taken into account that a hard edged Rock sound wasn’t foreign turf for Palmer. He had shown Rock tendencies in the past as evidenced by recordings like “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming” from 1978’s DoubleFun and Palmer’s first hit single, Moon Martin’s “Bad Case Of Loving You” from 1979’s Secrets). The resultant release was a hit, producing 3 Top Ten singles including “Some Like It Hot” and a cover of T-Rex’s “Get It On (Bang A Gong)”. (Incidentally, of “Get It On,” Palmer said that when he read the lyric sheet he thought the song was ridiculous, and that the only way that he could pull it off was to “camp it up”). Palmer balked at touring with the band because he didn’t want to go on the road with a line-up of just 8 songs. That, and coupled with the fact that he was currently working on his next album.
That next album was Riptide which went to the top of the charts for several weeks on the strength of the (in)famous “Addicted To Love”. While overshadowed by “Addicted To Love”, in all fairness, Palmer should be given some credit for other very good songs that are included in the set like “Hyperactive”, a refined version of Earl King’s “Trick Bag”, “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On”, and “Discipline Of Love”.
In the context of a lot of the music of the day, “Addicted To Love”, (that earned Palmer his first Grammy), doesn’t need to be defended. But it has its’ detractors based almost solely on a video of what’s viewed as a mindless sexist power chord vamp. What’s lost is that its’ appeal lies in its’ very ZZ Top like simplicity. Further, I’m sure the song would be viewed quite differently had it been released as it was initially intended. The song was originally recorded as a duet with Chaka Khan, (who Palmer credited with the vocal arrangement). However, at the last minute, Khan’s management had Khan’s vocal track erased because they felt that the song would detract from the three singles she had out at the same time. (And, of course, any accompanying video including Chaka is left to speculation).
Palmer had finally broken through to the mainstream so it was an obvious decision to capitalize on his new found fame by repeating the formula with his next single “Simply Irresistible”. Complete with the complementary video of Palmer at the mic surrounded by gyrating models, “Simply Irresistible” would hit and garner Palmer a second Grammy. But the album it was drawn from, Heavy Nova, unfortunately didn’t follow suit. The juxtapositioning of heavy Rock with romantic standards, (e.g. Palmer covers Peggy Lee’s “It Could Happen To You”), led to buyer confusion and resistance.
Given the state of the industry, and the ephemeral nature of record buyers, Robert Palmer had an opportunity to grab the brass ring but had lost consumer trust by failing to stay with the winning formula established with “Addicted To Love” and “Simply Irresistible”. This skepticism would make it even harder, given Palmer’s continued “moving target” approach, to make any headway with future releases.
True to form those upcoming albums would contain diverse offerings of Adult Contemporary, R&B, World Beat, and Blues, (sometimes all on the same record). Lost in the confusion was Palmer’s last offering, 2003’s Drive, that was given short shrift because of the preceding demonstration of a seeming lack of direction, and the fact that it’s a fairly straight ahead Blues record. Unfortunately, Blues is a hard sell; and, in this instance, more so when coupled with the credibility factor of the suave Robert Palmer doing a Blues album.
It’s rather unfortunate because Drive is a really good record. The stylized insert photo portrays Palmer holding a cigarette, and the gutbucket vocals on the disc give the distinct impression that he smoked a carton of them before going into the studio. Like nothing Palmer has ever done before, the production values are akin to a vintage Blues recording with standard Blues instrumentation complete with harp. The result is a rendering of 10 credible Blues / R&B covers. (There are 12 cuts but Palmer couldn’t help himself; he had to include other genres: Adult Contemporary – “Dr. Zhivago’s Train” – and World Beat – “Stella”). The album opens with a rocking rendition of J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk To Your Daughter”; and other highlights include Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, Bobby Bland’s “Who’s Fooling Who”, and Little Willie John’s “I Need Your Love So Bad”.
Throughout Robert Palmer’s career, he remained a very private person. The thrice married Palmer obviously had a love for women as evidenced by his album covers and videos, but there were no salacious rumours or sordid tales that made the tabloids. The Rock star life held little appeal, and there were no stories of an ill-behaved Palmer heaving TV’s out hotel windows. As he said in interviews, he avoided unwanted scrutiny by always working on the next musical project; (Palmer proved to be proficient on a number of instruments over the years and he prided himself in having built a state of the art home recording studio).
One aspect of the star making machinery that Palmer always paid close attention to was promotion. He welcomed going on promotional junkets (“it’s part of the job”), and was always gracious and accommodating in all of his dealings with the press. It’s stuff of legend that, in the 80’s, Palmer would show up for a round of interviews with a pack of Dunhills and a bottle of single malt that he would steadily work his way through in the course of the exchanges.
Palmer moved to Lugano Switzerland in the 90’s and lived there till his untimely death. He and his partner Mary Ambrose were vacationing in Paris when Palmer died suddenly after suffering a massive heart attack on September 26, 2003. He was 54.
Despite his time in the spotlight Robert Palmer was never really appreciated. With everything he brought to the table, Robert Palmer was truly a cut above.
“Dinah Washington just about invented Gospel based soulful singing”
Dinah Washington has proven to be the most influential singer of her generation. A case can be made that she even eclipsed her idol, Billie Holiday, in that regard. She has inspired a great number of Jazz and R&B singers, but none more so than Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson. (For instance, listen to Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” or just about anything by Esther Phillips for that matter). Known for a pitch perfect and distinctive vocal style with unqualified diction, Washington’s roots were in the Baptist Church.
It was early on after the family moved to Chicago from her birth home of Tuscaloosa Alabama that her mother discovered that four year old Dinah, (born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924), had a highly developed musical ear. Dinah’s mother, who worked as a domestic, played piano and served as a vocal coach at St. Luke The Baptist local church. Sensing her daughter’s God given ability, she encouraged her to bring her talents to the fore. Starting to play piano in elementary school, it wasn’t long before Dinah was rehearsing her mother’s choir and later singing lead as a teenager.
At 15, with her mother’s blessing, she got her first professional gig singing with a well-known local Gospel ensemble, The Sallie Martin Singers. Once again, Dinah quickly assumed the role of lead singer of the group. But all was not right in Washington’s world in that her heart was elsewhere. Heavily influenced by Billie Holiday’s 1930 recordings, and rationalizing that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was mixing Blues and Gospel – after winning a talent contest at The Regal Theatre – Dinah started moonlighting as a Blues / Cabaret singer. Washington did so without her mother’s knowledge because she knew that she never would have received her consent.
Dinah stayed with Sallie Martin for two years, and at 17, decided to take a stand and follow her first mind – that of entering the secular music field with no looking back. What should be taken into consideration is that although it was a personal artistic decision, financial considerations no doubt played a role. To explain, when the family moved from Tuscaloosa, they did so not only to escape the overt racism of the South but also to hopefully benefit from a more prosperous life. But growing up in Chicago’s South Side proved to hold no better living conditions than those in Alabama. (Washington would mention more than once the roach infested apartment that they inhabited upon their move to the Windy City). The abject poverty would have a lasting effect on Washington and be one of the reasons that she would later overcompensate, as her star brightened, by rewarding herself with unrestrained purchases. (Friends and family would also benefit in that she would shower them with lavish gifts as well).
By the time Dinah had committed herself to her new career, she was already a seasoned entertainer. It wasn’t long before she established herself gaining popularity at all of the high profile Chicago night spots be it The Down Beat Club, The Rhumboogie, or The Garrick Stage Bar. Dinah moved quickly from a gifted Gospel singer to one displaying a mastery of Blues, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and anything in between. During her residency at The Garrick she was introduced to Lionel Hampton who happened to be looking for a female singer. Hampton’s first impressions proved to be right on the mark: “She had that gutty style that they would call R&B. I invited her to sing at The Regal Theatre the next day…she walked out on the stage liked she owned it”.
Ruth Jones was now Dinah Washington, (there’s much conjecture as to how she came to be called DW), and although her three year stay with Hampton was an important career building block, Dinah recognized it correctly as a stepping stone. Dinah wasn’t pleased that she was excluded from Hampton’s Decca recordings. Coupled with that, Dinah was only allowed to sing 2 or 3 numbers a night when she knew she was the star of the show. (That was borne out by Hampton himself: “Dinah alone could stop the show… I had to put her down next to closing because nobody could follow her. She had a background in Gospel, and she put something new into the popular songs I had her sing”). Therein was another problem as Dinah saw it. That is, none of the songs were Blues which Dinah was sure was where trends were leading and a genre that Dinah was convinced would pay her more than the $75 a week she was making with Hampton.
Dinah stayed with Hampton for 3 years (1943 -1946). While still performing as Hampton’s featured vocalist, Dinah stepped outside to cut some sides on the Keynote label under the supervision of renowned Jazz pianist, composer, producer, and music journalist Leonard Feather. In 1943 the 19 year old Washington cut the Feather composition and Top Ten hit “Evil Gal Blues”. The recording made quite an impression on Feather who said: “After the first take of ‘Evil Gal Blues’ I was convinced that something of lasting value was happening”. He went on to say that “Evil Gal” was arguably the most impressive debut record by a female singer since Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” in 1923. High praise indeed from someone who was certainly in the know.
The same session yielded another Top Ten hit, (once again written by Feather), “Salty Papa Blues”. Dinah did record as a featured singer on a Hampton release for Decca in a second session with Feather that produced “Blow Top Blues”. However, the Hampton / Feather co-write, that hit # 21 on the charts was released in 1947, a year after Dinah left Hampton. And, while still in Hampton’s employ she recorded 12 sides for the Apollo label in 1945, but the official launch of Dinah’s solo career wasn’t until 1946 when she signed with Mercury Records.
Washington was on Mercury Records for a highly successful run from 1946 through 1961 recording 444 sides for the label. She would also record with Roulette, but it was during her Mercury years that Dinah – the label’s top selling artist with more than 30 hits – rose to stardom while being well rewarded financially for her efforts. (As an example, in 1949 a 25 year old Dinah was making over $100,000 annually – more than 1.1 million dollars in today’s money).
Still, Dinah’s relationship with Mercury was a stormy one. She was never satisfied, finding fault with the label on a number of fronts including how Mercury was promoting her as “Queen Of The Blues”. Her complaint was not only that Bessie Smith already had the title, but also that it was limiting because as Dinah said “I can sing anything”. And she could, as evidenced by her many hits crossing all genre boundaries.
Although she had numerous hits, Dinah’s probably best remembered for the three recordings inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame for their qualitative and historical significance: “What A Difference A Day Makes” – a # 8 hit in 1959 that earned Dinah a Grammy, was inducted in 1998 “Teach Me Tonight” – a 1954 recording inducted in 1999 “Unforgettable” – a 1959 recording inducted in 2001
In addition, Dinah is also known for a couple of double entendre numbers that fall into the “Dirty Blues” category and display her playful, bold, sassy side: “Long John Blues” and “Big Long Sliding Thing”. “Long John” is a song about her dentist: “He took out his trusty drill / Told me to open wide / He said he wouldn’t hurt me/ But filled my whole inside”. Like “Long John”, “Sliding Thing”, (supposedly about a trombonist), leaves little to the imagination.
On a more serious note, among her albums, her 1954 release Dinah Jams merits essential listening. Recorded live before a studio audience, the date intersperses vocals and hot instrumentals with Dinah holding her own with Jazz heavyweights including Clifford Brown, Clarke Terry, and Max Roach. Dinah contributes moving, impeccable renditions of “Lover Come Back To Me”, “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and “You Go To My Head”. Not only is the recording a display of her immense vocal artistry it does so in a setting that matches her with peerless musicians that challenge her and push her to inspired heights.
Dinah also cemented her reputation with outstanding live performances. Among her high profile achievements were headlining appearances at The Newport Jazz Festival from1955 to 1959. (In particular, her 1958 appearance singing “All Of Me” is a highlight of the classic film Jazz On A Summer’s Day). And, Dinah also appeared frequently at historic Jazz venues such as Birdland and The Village Vanguard.
Dinah’s other prevalent qualities were less flattering. Namely, her tempestuous temper that, when combined with her inordinate consumption of alcohol – she loved fine brandy – made for a devastating combination. And, making matters worse, anyone in the vicinity of the target of her wrath was collateral damage, and suffered her scorn as well.
No one was safe from her disdain be they record executives, backing musicians, fans, or fellow artists. Etta James tells a story of playing in a small club, and upon hearing that Washington was in town and planning on catching her midnight show, decided to perform “Unforgettable” in her honour. Etta said: “I didn’t even get to the chorus when I heard this earth shattering crash. Dinah got up off her chair, swept all the glasses and plates off her table, and pointed at me screaming ‘Bitch, don’t you ever sing the Queen’s song when the Queen is right in front of you’”.
Such tantrums and scenes of arrogance were commonplace for Dinah. It was said that she had an outsized ego and a temperament that could move from angelic to demonic and back in a flash. It all stemmed from a deep rooted insecurity that took her to extreme depths of self-doubt. Her personal life was in constant turmoil, falling in and out of love on a continual basis, in search of devoted acceptance from a true soul mate. Depending on the source, Dinah had 7 or 8 or 9 marriages, and numerous affairs on the side. (Dinah was famous for saying of marriage: “If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, get a new dog”).
Adding to her insecurities, Dinah – who was a short and stocky in stature – was excessively concerned with her looks. She battled weight problems, was always going on crash diets, and turned to prescription medications – mostly for weight loss and insomnia – that would prove to be her downfall. Also playing a role in her uncertainty was that Dinah never forgot her once impoverished life. She raced through life buying shoes, furs, cars, and anything else to simultaneously make her forget her humble beginnings and lift her spirits.
On the morning of December 14, 1963, Dinah’s last husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane, couldn’t wake her from what he initially thought was a deep sleep. The subsequent medical examiner’s report stated an excess of barbiturates in her blood – more than twice the dosage of two different sedatives. It was thought that Dinah took them by mistake because they were not properly identified. Dinah Washington, “Miss D”, “Queen of The Blues” was dead at the relatively young age of 39.
Dinah Washington was truly one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the 20th century. In addition to Washington’s many artistic accomplishments, she paved the way for African Americans in commercial Pop music and was the first Black woman to star in Las Vegas. Gone but hardly forgotten, among many other acknowledgments, Dinah Washington was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993.
“Lucinda Williams writes songs about women looking for independence and fulfillment, about men and women welcoming love or barring the door against it, about people doing their best to get by in a world too self-absorbed to care”
It’s been quite a ride over the course of some 40 years and 17 albums for Lucinda Williams; progressing from making a record of reverent Blues covers, (Ramblin’ On My Mind), to a snarling, angry statement / observation of a Trump led America (Good Souls Better Angels).
In the course of that trip, I had an opportunity to catch Lucinda and her excellent backing trio – Buick 6 – a few years ago at Massey Hall in Toronto. The moment for me, (of many fine moments), was when Lucinda sent the band off-stage to perform solo. That offered an opportunity, with only the backing of Lucinda’s acoustic guitar, to really zone in on her lyrical expertise. Williams once described the song writing exercise as something akin to going to the bottom of the well, scraping that bottom, and resurfacing with spirit intact to share the experience. That night she summarized that skill with her solo rendition of “When I Look At The World”. It’s a song that might be downplayed as just another good Lucinda Williams song, but it struck a definite chord with me. Forever melancholy, but filled with the optimism of renewal:
“I’ve been out of luck; I’ve been talked about I’ve been locked up; I’ve been shut out I’ve had some bad dreams; and then feel the regret I’ve made a mess of things; and been a total wreck I’ve been disrespected; and taken for a ride I’ve been rejected; and had my patience tried
But then I look at the world in all its glory I look at the world and it’s a different story Each time I look at the world”
Her father, celebrated poet and college professor Miller Williams, passed on the love of poetry and language. It was also her father– that, incidentally, introduced a young Lucinda to the Delta Blues, Hank Williams and John Coltrane – who urged her to express her feelings without censoring herself. Lucinda benefitted from not only that guidance but also a wealth of life experiences as she and her two siblings moved to different locales as dictated by their father’s various teaching jobs. Miller Williams, who gained custody of the children after his divorce from Lucinda’s mother moved them from their home in Lake Charles Louisiana to different destinations in Mississippi, Georgia, Mexico City, and Santiago Chile before settling at The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Miller Williams – probably most famous for his reading of a poem at President Clinton’s second inauguration – was part of a literary crowd that included friendships with a peer group of Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, and Charles Bukowski among others. It was commonplace to have the aforementioned as frequent visitors to the Williams home.
As a young adult, not only did Lucinda benefit by observation at these intellectual gatherings but she would also take part in some of the activities. Those activities often included her father reading a new poem that he might have written as well as Lucinda playing a role by singing one of her songs*. And Lucinda would get immediate feedback that naturally accelerated her learning. It’s no surprise that Lucinda would soon adopt a poet’s sense of refinement.
(*An interesting footnote: In a rare 2014 performance in Chicago, Lucinda and her father traded poems and songs in what Lucinda described as a “songwriters’ in-the-round show”.)
Her mother, Lucille, a concert pianist, whose health issues prevented her from pursuing a music career, also played a role in Lucinda’s arts education. Lucinda’s Folk bearings were courtesy of her mother who exposed her to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez – outstanding song writers all. A product of her environment, Lucinda, first showed signs of song writing skills at 6 years of age. She was inspired later, at the age of 12, to play guitar, sing, and write songs after hearing Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Lucinda explained her fascination with the recording saying “He was the first artist who actually managed to incorporate both of the worlds I came out of, which was more the traditional Folk music of America and the poetic, literary world. That’s when I decided what I wanted to achieve”. It’s no secret that Lucinda’s admiration for Dylan remains to present day as she named him as her favourite artist, (living or dead), in a recent interview.
As Lucinda was immersing herself in poetry and Folk music, she added a natural Roots music idiom common to the southern landscape – the Blues. Lucinda recalls that her first real introduction to the Blues took place when the family was living in Macon Georgia. It happened that her father brought her downtown to hear Rev. Pearly Brown, a local blind preacher and street singer, playing on a street corner. Brown was soon discovered and recorded an album, Georgia Street Singer, that Miller Williams brought home. Lucinda further described the experience: “It’s beautiful stuff, like Gospel Blues. That was a real pivotal moment for me, because I had actually seen this guy singing and playing, and then he had an album I could listen to.”
Seeing her future as a Folk / Blues artist Lucinda left home in 1970, at 17, to hit the road. She first started performing publicly in New Orleans and then split her time between Austin and Houston before trying the Greenwich Village scene and later Los Angeles. In fact, Lucinda spent a good part of her 20’s, (and early 30’s), bouncing from Austin, Houston, New York, and L.A. just scraping by. Her time was spent busking, waiting tables, working at a record store – never abandoning her craft – and waiting for a break that would be long in coming.
While by no means an enviable or glamourous life, Williams used that time creatively, always documenting her view of day to day occurrences in the world around her. Some topics were autobiographical, others nuanced observations, with all conveyed in raw mournful assertions be they of love, heartbreak, death, or despair. Even in her early song writing forays her talent to stab you in the heart or kick you in the gut with doses of reality was readily apparent.
Surprisingly, when Williams did have the opportunity to record her first album, her song writing wasn’t featured. Conversely, her 1979 album Ramblin’ On My Mind – released later as Ramblin’ – was a purist Country Blues affair. With Lucinda on 12 string acoustic guitar accompanied solely by John Grimaudo on 6 string, Williams laid down credible versions of selections from the songbooks of Robert Johnson, (the title track and “Stop Breakin’ Down”), Memphis Minnie (“Me And My Chauffer”), Sleepy John Estes, (“Drop Down Mama” here renamed as “Daddy”), and Hank Williams (“Jambalaya”) among the 14 cuts. (Lucinda explained the traditionalist approach as one of being influenced by recording at Malaco Studios, in the lap of Blues country, in Jackson Mississippi). Ramblin’ would be the last recording of its kind – solely one genre that is – in Lucinda’s career. But the Blues, or the spirit of the form, would continue to permeate her work going forward.
Williams followed the next year with Happy Woman Blues, a self-produced effort cut in Houston. While still Blues based and still acoustic driven, the release is a full band work, comprised of completely original material. Although using shopworn themes, the subject matter, under Lucinda’s purview, sounds fresh and contemporary. Unfortunately, like its’ predecessor, Happy Woman Blues didn’t cause a ripple with listeners and record buyers. It would be eight more years before Williams would establish herself as a force to be reckoned with.
Williams recorded a demo of 12 songs that broke with all that had gone before. She traded her traditional Blues for a feminist anthem, (the first of more to follow in her catalogue), channelled through a blend of Country, Blues, Folk, and Rock. But what would prove to be a ground breaking release initially failed to catch a record company’s attention. Fortunately, after being turned down by CBS as well as other labels, Rough Trade, the British Indie label – that had recently opened up shop in the U.S. – was on the lookout for artists and took a chance signing Williams. The label, that had made its mark with Punk, seized the opportunity to release the set of songs. While recognizing the various themes that incorporated a Southern U.S. sensibility and imagery had little in common with Punk, they were sure that the record’s raw energy would override any concerns that came into play. Thus, the classic Lucinda Williams burst on the scene in 1988, and announced Williams’ arrival in no uncertain terms.
The first song “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” bolts out of the gate resolute in its’ singular objective – repeating the title line 14 times in an intense 2:26 of primal need:
“I drove my car in the middle of the night I just wanted to see you so bad The road was dark but the stars were bright I just wanted to see you so bad
It didn’t matter what my friends would say I was gonna see you anyway I just wanted to see you so bad I just wanted to see you so bad”
“See You So Bad” immediately grabs the listener’s attention and sets the stage for the remainder of the record that goes a long way in establishing the foundation of Lucinda’s style and sound that she would carry with her for the rest of her career. And the breakthrough and sheer strength of the release wasn’t lost on Williams: “Before that I hadn’t found myself yet. The Rough Trade album – that’s the one that opened the door”.
Along with the opener two other songs form the core of release and its’ assertive female characters: “Changed The Locks” and “Passionate Kisses”.
“Changed The Locks” is a defiant post break-up song delivered in a sneering thrashing Blues. It’s a rant that details all at her disposal to ensure that her former lover can’t find her while helping erase any memories of the affair:
“I changed the lock on my front door so you can’t see me anymore… I changed the number on my phone so you can’t call me up at home… I changed the kind of car I drive so you can’t see me when I go by… I changed the kind of clothes I wear so you can’t find me anywhere… I changed the tracks underneath the train so you can’t find me again… I changed the name of this town so you can’t follow me down…”
“Passionate Kisses” isn’t a request but an out and out demand:
“Passionate kisses Passionate kisses, whoa oh oh Passionate kisses from you
Do I want too much? Am I going overboard to want that touch? I shouted out to the night “Give me what I deserve ’cause it’s my right”
The appeal of the album wasn’t lost on her peers. “Passionate Kisses” would earn Lucinda her first Grammy for “Country Song Of The Year” when it was covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter on her album Come On Come On and “Changed The Locks” would be covered by Tom Petty on his Angel Dream release.
Lucinda had finally arrived at 35 years of age. But despite the aforementioned songs and other strong supporting cuts to recommend it, Lucinda Williams didn’t sell well initially. It wasn’t until two subsequent re-issues, in 1998 (with additional tracks), and 2014 (a 2 CD Deluxe Edition including additional studio and live tracks), that the release gained traction and eventually went Gold.
A total of 13 more albums followed the Lucinda Willliams release; every one of them critically acclaimed. But it was her 5th, that hit the streets a full ten years after Lucinda Willliams, that’s a cut above the rest. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road shares the praise with her self-titled release as a cornerstone of Roots / Americana. The album was, and continues to be, universally celebrated as Williams’ masterpiece.
“Car Wheels” is a star studded affair that contains some of Williams’ best song writing complete with earworm worthy melodies. The album kicks off with a radio friendly “Right In Time”; and Lucinda tells her musical stories via fully evolved world weary, whiskey soaked vocals that reveal an array of emotions. And she does so while describing seemingly mundane incidences like standing over the stove watching the water boil. (Reading the lyrics is a treat and is highly recommended).
As effortless as the final product appears, “Car Wheels” has a long troubled history that bears repeating. That history certainly plays a major role in the frequently circulated stories that Lucinda is difficult to work with in the studio. I counter that it reflects the focused approach of a perfectionist leaving nothing to chance while bent on putting forward the best product possible, (and one representative of her significant talent).
The project started with Lucinda and her guitar player Gurf Morlix co-producing (as they had done with the previous two albums including Lucinda Williams). Recorded in Nashville, the resultant product didn’t meet with Lucinda’s expectations which led to Morlix leaving the project. A year later Lucinda turned to Steve Earle and his production associate Ray Kennedy to revamp the tracks. While their work moved the tracks closer to what Lucinda had envisioned, she still wasn’t satisfied. In turn, she took the tapes to L.A. and asked Roy Bittan of The E Street Band to help with some keyboard and accordion overdubs. It took three years for the final product to be completed but, it goes without saying, it was well worth the wait. Every track’s a killer! The album that earned Lucinda her second Grammy, (“Best Contemporary Folk Album”) as well as a nomination for “Best Female Rock Vocal Performance” for the single “Can’t Let Go” went Gold and remains her bestselling album to date.
Lucinda had truly hit her stride with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and she has continued to build on her singular vocals and extraordinary song writing that have encompassed testimonies on problematic topics including broken relationships and tragic loss on her stellar future releases.
While acknowledging Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s special place, if you were to ask Lucinda Williams fans and critics alike what would be the best of her releases that follow you would conceivably get ten different answers. So I’ll weigh in and say that special mention should be accorded Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone and Good Souls Better Angels.
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, a 2014 release, is an ambitious 20 song double CD. Her first on her own label – Highway 20 – the album marks the first time that Williams has complete control over the creative process; and she takes full advantage of the situation. The song writing, as always, is top notch; but it’s her vocals that draw the listener in. Herein she adopts a more aggressive style while stretching out to include Gospel inflected shouts and melismatic Jazz phrasings. Along with the previously mentioned “When I Look At The World”, highlights are numerous. Of special mention is “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, a straight ahead Southern Blues that benefits greatly from fellow Louisianan Tony Joe White’s guitar providing sufficient voodoo. Suffice to say that there isn’t a weak cut as Lucinda leads the listener on a journey of emotional touchstones.
Lucinda Williams’ latest, Good Souls Better Angels, is without question her most socially conscious, topical release to date. Backed by Buick 6, Lucinda didn’t dwell on the songs; she recorded them live – usually in two or three takes. Using a Blues oriented approach, an angry Williams spits out the lyrics while Stuart Mathis’ sonic guitar attacks add to the “go for the throat” mentality. The song titles alone tell the story: “You Can’t Rule Me”, “Bone Of Contention”, Man Without A Soul” (a thinly veiled Trump directed shot), “Bad News Blues”, “Pray The Devil Back To Hell”. And no discussion or narrative relating to the release would be complete without citing the apparently autobiographical and horrific depiction of domestic abuse laid out in “Wakin’ Up (From A Bad Dream)”. It’s for real. And, if it shocks you or makes you uncomfortable, Williams has achieved her objective.
Actually, there are two additional more recent releases that bear mentioning, and at first blush, might be – but rightfully shouldn’t be – written off as strictly for diehard Lucinda Williams fans. Breaking with the norm, the 2021 CD’s: Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 1 and Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 2, are outlets for tributes to artists and covers of songs that have made an impression or influenced Williams. Vol. 1 is Runnin’ Down A Dream – A Tribute To Tom Petty and Vol. 2 is Southern Soul – From Memphis To Muscle Shoals.
Both are cut live in the studio, have value, and carry emotional weight. “Southern Soul” in particular is a standout. Given Lucinda’s Southern sensibilities, this set of covers – some from the golden age of Soul – is a natural extension of Lucinda’s own work. If you’re looking to categorize the release, call it Alt Soul. And, interestingly, there are no keyboards employed on any of the selections. Defying the accepted Soul band format, guitars are left to do the heavy lifting.
Be warned to wipe your memory bank of the original versions because, as you’d expect, Lucinda takes a lot of liberties with the various choices. Notable is Lucinda’s account of “Take Me To The River”, that borrows more from Talking Heads’ version than it does Al Green’s original, and includes a totally irreverent, badass guitar solo courtesy of Stuart Mathis.
Not long after recording Lu’s Jukebox series Lucinda Williams suffered a stroke at her Nashville home in November 2020. After surgery to remove a blood clot on her brain, and the required physical therapy, Williams has pronounced herself fit to carry on. Her mobility has been affected – she’s currently walking with the help of a cane – but at this writing she planned to be ready for a scheduled summer tour. The 68 year old Williams remarked that she might have to perform “sitting down like some old Bluesman” to get the job done. That’s more than good enough for me.