Our eleven year old son loves his Legos. A few years ago he built an amazing scale model of the record store.
All the Legos are still there, but the little store has been disassembled and built into something new time and time again. At eleven Gus has a better grasp on the ongoing impermanence of life than either of us.
As our old friend Ben Weaver sang, “It takes a fire to open up the seed of the pine.” That song (“Frank’s Getaway Car”) appears on an album we released on the Hymies label five years ago. Ironically, it was a fire, an actual fire, that led us here to the record store in the first place. Out of the darkness of our despair we found solace, friendship and healing here at Hymie’s. So much has happened it hard to imagine its only been a decade and some. It’s been, well, a long, strange trip.
It’s time for us to build something new, but fortunately we don’t have to disassemble the actual record store as we depart. Maybe we’ll make a spaceship, or maybe a getaway car of our own. There are some nice folks who will be taking over the record store this week, and we’re certain it will remain the magical place it has always been — “A crossroads of the Universe,” a friend once called it. This is Laura and Dave, and Gus and Nova, and of course Irene, signing out.
Thanks for sharing some songs with us. It really has been a long, strange trip.
A mismatch in the record store lexicon is when the album is placed back into the wrong jacket. This is an understandable phenomenon in setting such as ours, where hundreds of thousands of records are spread over thousands of square feet, with three listening stations for anyone to use.
Fortunately, it doesn’t happen that often. But once in a while the mismatched pair makes one wonder…
We love the text on this old Columbia inner sleeve. And it’s only partly out of date.
HERE’S HOW RECORDS GIVE YOU MORE OF WHAT YOU WANT.
1. THEY’RE YOUR BEST ENTERTAINMENT BUY. Records give you top quality for less money than any other recorded form. Every album is a show in itself. And once you’ve paid the price of admission, you can hear it over and over.
2. THEY ALLOW SELECTIVITY OF SONGS AND TRACKS. With records its easy to pick out the songs you want to play, or to play again a particular song or side. All you have to do it lift the tone arm and place it where you want it. You can’t do this as easily with anything but a phonograph album.
3. THEY’RE CONVENIENT, AND EASY TO HANDLE. With the long-playing record you get what you want to hear, when you want to hear it. Everybody’s familiar with records, too. And you can go anywhere with them because they’re light and don’t take up space.
4. THEY’RE ATTRACTIVE, INFORMATIVE AND EASY TO STORE. Record albums are never out of place. Because of the aesthetic appeal of the jacket design, they’re beautifully at home in any living room or library. They’ve also got important information on the backs — about the artists, about the performances or about the program. And because they’re flat and not bulky, you can store hundreds in a minimum of space and still see every title.
5. THEY’LL GIVE YOU HOURS OF CONTINUOUS AND UNINTERRUPTED LISTENING PLEASURE. Just stack them up on your automatic changer and relax.
6. THEY’RE THE PROVEN MEDIUM. Long-playing phonograph records look the same now as when they were introduced in 1948, but there’s a world of difference. Countless refinements and developments have been made to perfect the long-playing record’s technical excellence and insure the best in sound reproduction and quality.
7. IF IT’S IN RECORDED FORM, YOU KNOW IT’LL BE AVAILABLE ON RECORDS. Everything’s on long-playing records these days … your favorite artists, shows comedy, movie soundtracks, concerts, drama, documented history, educational material .. you name it. This is not so with any other kind of recording.
8. THEY MAKE A GREAT GIFT. Because everybody you know loves music. And everyone owns a phonograph because it’s the musical instrument everyone knows how to play. Records are a gift that says a lot to the person you’re giving them to. And they keep on remembering.
AND REMEMBER … IT ALWAYS HAPPENS FIRST ON RECORDS.
There’s this li’l section here in your friendly neighborhood record shop we call “The movie is so bad, but the music is so good!” Its hard to find soundtrack albums which fit the bill, but sort of a fun project — the other challenge is that folks buy up the best ones right away because, after all, the music is so good.
Obvious examples would be movies like More American Graffiti: the unwanted sequel’s soundtrack was filled with sixties favorites. Other examples would be when an artist creates an original score which ages more gracefully than the album itself. Perhaps the best example of this is also an extraordinarily rare record: nobody on Earth wants to see She’s the One again, but countless Tom Petty fans would love to track down an elusive copy of the LP.
And The Big Chill, which was a completely unrewarding movie to anyone who wasn’t a baby boomer. This dumb movie enjoyed the first wave of Motown’s licensing of its extensive catalog, making the soundtrack a sort of ‘essential 60s’ collection. It did so well a second volume was introduced the following year.
And Super Fly— probably the best example of a soundtrack album far superior to the film itself. In fact, it’s one of few films to make less money than its accompanying record.
Curtis Mayfield recorded more than twenty-five albums after leaving the Impressions, but his name is synonymous with the seventies soundtrack based largely on this classic record. Curtis Mayfield’s score for the 1972 movie fits better with the socially conscious albums by Curtis’ contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than the rest of the blaxsploitation genre. Super Fly is entirely different from albums like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and James Brown’s Black Caesar.
In songs like “Pusherman” and “No Thing on Me” Curtis criticizes the glorification of dealers and pimps in films like Super Fly. and presents a more accurate picture of drug abuse. This is exactly what critics of the movie (like the NAACP) were asking to see. In fact, Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums of all time.
Also, the songs are some of the best Curtis ever wrote. “Pusherman” and “Give me your Love (Love Song)” are completely original arrangements only Curtis could have created — and the title track is one of his funkiest moments on record.
And its phenomenal success provided Curtis the opportunity to score several more films in the coming years.
The overwhelmingly ironic 1971 album Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs aside, there were few explicit anti-drug messages to be found in record stores in the early 70s, especially in the soul section. This is especially unfortunate because of the enormous societal toll drug traffic took from those in the inner cities. Curtis’ portrayal of dope fiends and dealers (especially in “Freddy’s Dead”) present a cautionary tale which presaged the crack epidemic of a decade later.
After finishing an excellent follow-up album of new material (Back to the World), Curtis turned to his next film project: the soundtrack for Claudine, a family drama which fit the demands of organizations like the NAACP, who wished to see more African-American films outside the blaxsploitation genre. The songs on Curtis’ soundtrack for Claudine were performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, hot off the success of their top-selling album Imagination, from which came “Midnight Train to Georgia” and three other hit singles.
The movie Claudine carried heavy social messages about the African-American community, but Curtis translated few of these into his songs for the score, focusing instead on the film’s love story between a single mother played by singer Diahann Carroll and a garbageman played by James Earl Jones. The songs are more in the style of his later-period music with the Impressions than the heavy funk infused soul of Super Fly, but the song “On and On” was a top 10 single in that style.
Curtis again brought guests into the studio to perform the songs for his next soundtrack album, Let’s Do It Again. This time it was the Staple Singers, who had just signed onto his Curtom label after the Stax bankruptcy. The legendary gospel-turned-sou. group proved to be a perfect fit to Curtis’ sound, and the soundtrack’s title tune was a hit single.
Let’s Do It Again is the middle film in a trilogy of Sydney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies set around zany schemes. The first, Uptown Saturday Night, had been scored by soul saxophonist Tom Scott, and Curtis would come back with Mavis Staples to produce the music for the third, A Piece of the Action.
Let’s Do It Again finds the pair rigging boxing matches by hypnotizing an underdog fighter played by Jimmie Walker, who starred as J.J. on TV’s Good Times., and had recently released his debut comedy album (which we posted last week).
It’s a pretty good comedy, but folks aren’t really scrambling to find classic Cosby these days. Curtis’ soundtrack, however, is well worth the work to hunt down a copy.
His score for the last film in the series was released as a Mavis Staples solo album. We couldn’t find a copy for this post, but you can enjoy the theme (plus watch the one and only Sidney Poitier dance) in its closing scene:
The 1976 period piece Sparkle starred Irene Cara (pre-Fame) in a Supremes-based story about singing sisters. The film received few positive reviews and would be entirely forgotten if it weren’t for Curtis’ soundtrack, which has Aretha Franklin singing all the leads instead of Cara.
Sparkle provided Aretha with her last hit single of the seventies, but it falls short of Curtis’ collaborations with Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight.
The last movie score Curtis produced until he returned to Hollywood to provide a few songs for The Return of Super Fly in 1990) was for Short Eyes, a prison drama based on Miguel Piñero’s award winning play. Unlike Super Fly, nothing is glorified in this harsh and realistic portrayal of prison life, which Piñero penned while serving in Sing Sing for armed robbery.
The story, which culminates in the beating death of a pedophile, has been praised for its presentation of prison hierarchy and race relations. Curtis’ album is equally gritty. He’d opened his first solo album with “Don’t Worry, If there’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and here starts off with a song which includes the line, “Ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven.” Short Eyes is our favorite Curtis Mayfield album. Highlights include some of his very best guitar work in the hopeless lament “Back Against the Wall” (where he sounds like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel) and his brand of innovative high-production funk in “Freak Freak Freak, Free Free Free.”
The opening track, “Doo Doo Wap (is Strong in Here)” was one of Curtis’ last charting hits, and would belong on any “Best of Curtis Mayfield” collection, if such a thing exists.
Short Eyes hit shelves in the waning years of the American prisoners’ rights movement, which had previously seen some attention in popular music. Bob Dylan had a largely forgotten hit single (peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) in 1972 with a song lauding prison writer and Black Panther activist George Jackson. His death — shot in the back during an escape attempt — led to prison protests around the country, notably the Attica uprising in upstate New York which began three weeks after Jackson’s death on September 9th, 1971.
The Attica uprising and its violent aftermath were the subject of many records in the coming years, including songs by John Lennon (“Attica State”), Paul Simon (“Virgil”) and 10cc (“Rubber Bullets”). Gil Scott-Heron referenced Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s culpability in “We Beg Your Pardon” and Charles Mingus implored listeners to “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” on Changes One.
Much of the prisoners’ movement came to a screeching halt with the Supreme Court’s Houchins v. KQED Inc ruling in 1978, which established there existed no “right of access” when it came to the incarcerated. This effectively shut off the movement’s ability to reach the masses via the media, and interest in the rights of the incarcerated waned just as, unfortunately, the war on drugs swelled to epic proportions. We can’t help to think of the tragic cycle described by Curtis in “Freddy’s Dead.” After asking, “Why can’t we brothers protect one another,” he describes another “Freddy on the corner now.”
You really can’t live in Minnesota without accepting the ever-changing seasons — those folks complaining about the weather are wasting your time. If you don’t like it just wait ’til tomorrow. Spring is welcomed and just as soon gone, replaced by those over-hot afternoons and dry, dormant lawns. Summer in its August glory gives way all too quickly to the cool evenings of September. Soon enough you’re huddled inside, sipping warm cider and watching the neighbor across the street shovel his walk.
Our own feelings for the seasons seem backwards. Never do we long to walk in a snowstorm more than the second week of May, and at no other time of the year would we more enjoy chasing the ice cream man with the kids than right around Thanksgiving. And right about now?
But this year, one of the hottest and wettest on record here in Minnesota, we have no choice to think about those sudden summer storms.
You’re in the garden, doing a mid-season chore like weeding (you haven’t given up yet) and there’s a sudden quickening of the breeze. You can hear it in the trees. Soon you can feel an energy in the air as the sky gets darker. It even smells different. And then a few drops, a few more, and then its storming so wildly you scarcely have time to gather your tools and close the shed door before you’re soaked. Or maybe you’re in bed and the rustling of the leaves wakes you. You look out in time to see branches bending, a flash of light and a sudden sheet of rain filling everything out your window.
Songs about the rain offer so many different things — it is one of the most varied ‘themed’ playlists you could create out of any record collection. From ELO’s bombastic “Concerto for a Rainy Day” (side three of Out of the Blue, which happily concludes with “Mr. Blue Sky”) to Pinhead Gunpowder’s “Mpls Song” (posted some time ago here), there is an incredible range. John Coltrane’s evocative “After the Rain” (on Impressions) has always been a favorite of ours, as has Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.” Surely you have favorites, too.
None capture the majestic spectacle of a summer storm — how could something so majestic hold the same power over a single sense? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know where we turn at times like this…
A couple years ago we featured a post called “Too Much” (here) about artists who released multiple albums on a single day, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and, of course, KISS — All of them are entirely surpassed by a single concert on December 22nd, 1808, when Ludwig van Beethoven debuted his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.
Many things distinguish Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in F Major, although its premier was a disaster. It is one of only two given a title by its composer (The Pastoral Symphony) and it is the most enjoyable explicitly programmatic composition in his oeuvre. Another unique quality is that it is presented in five movements, the final three of which are a seamless program (the tracks run into one another, you know, like in The Wall).
The first movement’s richly developed theme is one of the most memorable in all of classical music, setting the scene for the countryside which the composer often visited while working in Vienna. In the second movement, set around a brook, Beethoven uses woodwinds to represent bird calls, much in the way the French composer and amateur ornithologist Oliver Messiaen would (he was recently featured here on the Hymie’s blog). Beethoven even identifies the birds in his score: the flute representing a nightingale, the clarinet a cuckoo and the oboe a quail.
The third, fourth and fifth movements are, as mentioned before, a continuous program. All three are in the symphony’s main key of F major. The third is often the subject depicted on album covers, such as this early 60s (date anyone?) recording by George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Beethoven titled it “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (Merry gathering of country folk) — It is the symphony’s scherzo, or it’s light-hearted and fun passage, depicting a dance in the countryside. It grows and grows until a sudden interruption.
In one of the most sublime moments in all music, Beethoven interrupts the gathering with a summer storm. First a few drops from the strings, then with a striking intensity (especially from the double basses) comes the rain. It sounds as though the celebrants struggle to gather themselves and their things before they’re soaked, only to be inundated by the crashing thunder (tympani providing the only percussion) and waves of windy rain.
(This track includes the coming of the storm, the storm, and its aftermath — the end of the third movement, the entire fourth, and the entire fifth — from an exceptional early 60s recording by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell)
And in a stunning three and a half minutes it is passed, giving way to the Allegreto finale, the “Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm,” as described by Beethoven. The passage transforms the Sixth from a mere portrayal of pastoral life to an episode within it.
Other composers have created storms — Haydn ended his Symphony no. 8 in a similar fashion and Vivaldi naturally included one in his Four Seasons — But Beethoven’s cloudburst is the closest thing on record to the real thing.
It is nearly impossible to separate the poems of Langston Hughes from jazz, if only for their clever use of syncopation and repetition. He is often described as a jazz poet, and evidence of this influence can be seen as early as “When Sue Wears Red,” poem he wrote as a teenager.
As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he in turn influenced many jazz musicians — when last we visited Hughes here on the Hymies blog, it was to hear Nina Simone sing the song he wrote for her, “Backlash Blues” as well as a 90s collaboration between Courtney Pine and Cassandra Wilson to interpret his poem “I’ve Known Rivers.” This second song was first recorded by Gary Bartz in 1973, but we still haven’t found a replacement for our warped copy!
Hughes himself made a jazz album in 1958 for MGM Records, which was later reissued (as pictured here) by Verve Records in 1966. On it, he reads a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment of poems over two small jazz combos, one led by jazz writer and occasional composer Leonard Feather, who produced the project, and one led by Charles Mingus.
You have almost certainly on the back of an LP jacket if you own more than a handful of jazz records. He was, for many years, perhaps the most prolific writer of jazz liner notes in the world. In addition, his 1960 New Encyclopedia of Jazz is an absolutely indispensable compendium of history and criticism. He was a friend to Louis Armstrong, once employed as a press agent by Duke Ellington, and one of the earliest supporters of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with his 1949 book Inside Be Bop. He recorded albums as a pianist sporadically in the 50s and again in the 70s, but remains best known as a writer.
Leonard Feather never wrote the notes to a Charles Mingus album (in fact, the Mingus eulogy from Eric Dolphy’s Last Datewe quoted just last week was replaced on reissues by notes from Feather). He often wrote about Mingus’ music, however, twice inviting him to his “Blindfold Tests” (featured in his Platterbrains radio broadcasts as well as printed in Metronome and Down Beat) in which an artist responds to several unidentified selections of jazz music.
Two years after their collaboration with Langston Hughes, Feather would be “recording director” for Mingus’ only Mercury album, Pre-Bird, which included a reworking of Weary Blues‘s “Weird Nightmare.” Still, Feather and Mingus are strange bedfellows, and it comes across in the difference between the arrangements they produced to accompany Hughes.
Weary Blues is of interest to collectors of Mingus’ extensive discography. Falling just before the watershed year (1959) in which he composed and recorded Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, his apparently extemporaneous arrangements hint at what he had in the works. Several motifs from those three great albums can be recognized, even though he’s working with a substantially smaller group and under far more auspicious conditions — for contractural reasons, the quintet’s leadership was credited to pianist Horace Parlan, even though the work is undeniably Mingusonian.
Mingus is far more fit for the role of framing Hughes’ words than Feather, although the later is himself also a writer. Consider Mingus’ second appearance in Feather’s “Blindfold Test” in April 1960, in which he completely dismisses the first record, Manny Albam album, and would rather talk about the Civil Rights movement:
Take it off … Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started — maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important — all the stuff that’s happening down south.
Feather’s form — intended to slyly suggest talent is often not judged on its own merit but under pre-conceived notions of race, gender or age — undoubtedly frustrated the iconoclastic Mingus.
Although he certainly had extensive connections in New York’s jazz scene (as evident in the group he created to perform his arrangements on Side A), Feather chose Mingus to arrange music for Weary Blues likely because of the bassist’s often confrontational attitude. When, in 1979, he wrote Mingus’ obituary for the L.A. Times, Feather described him as “a brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years.”
The section here is titled “Dream Montage” and contains all or portions of fourteen of Hughes’ poems (depending on how you count his superfluous commentaries). The most notable of these is “Harlem,” the 1951 poem known for asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as it explores the American dream as experienced by African Americans. Its final line — “Or does it explode?” — almost ideally suited to Mingus’ musical and political leanings.
Another of the poems in this passage reads almost like it came from Mingus’ 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. In its entirety, “Final Curve” reads:
When you turn the corner And You have run into yourself Then you know that you have turned All the corners that are left
Of course, Langston Hughes’ readers have been wondering what he might have meant here for decades. Is the “Final Curve” the conclusion of a personal journey along the lines of Mingus’ Me, Myself and Eye and other late compositions, or is the poem part of Hughes’ push for cultural nationalism. So much of his work was about how the African American journey to the American dream began at home, in taking pride and ownership of a heritage even when others do not. Or, as Mingus wrote in Beneath the Underdog:
So he must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor song I liked a lot when I was a kid: what I mean is, take it easy, but take it.