“The Saga of Elvis Presley” by Betty Reilly
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Probably, people have said its hard to read the headlines as long as there have been newspapers, but recently it seems like there’s just about nothing good to greet us on the porch every morning. Walking the dog isn’t any better: last week Minneapolis police chased an arm suspect on our street and lost his gun, forcing them to block off a section of the neighborhood. No one will answer our questions as to whether or not the gun was found, which is alarming given the incident earlier this month in which a fifteen-year old boy was killed by a gun he and his brother found in a park near their home in north Minneapolis.
This morning, before even unrolling the paper, we were in the mood to hear two songs, both of which feel relevant this morning even though they’re each thirty-five years old.
This first song was written by Ron Miller, an ex-Marine washing machine salesman who was discovered by Motown founder Barry Gordy in a Detroit piano bar. First recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, the song reflected the same feeling we have reading the daily paper or even trying to walk through our neighborhood. A recording of the song was the highlight of Ray Charles last album, Genius Loves Company, in 2005. He was joined on the song by Gladys Knight.
“Heaven Help Us All” was connected to Stevie Wonder’s first independent expression at Motown, Where I’m Coming From, an album which addressed current events in much the same way as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. His songs, written with Syreeta Wright, were seen as pretentious and the production as excessive, pretty much the opposite of the perception of Gaye’s beloved classic. Disappointed, twenty-one year old Wonder re-negotiated his agreement with the label, and returned with the first in his series of great records.
The five albums (Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life) are about as close to perfection as any pop star has been, in our opinion. Each deals with social issues such as race, poverty and politics with calm insight uncommon at the time.
“Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder
“Lord Pity Us All” by Wilson Pickett
The second song was written by Dr. John, who when composing is credited by his birth name, Mac Rebbenack. So far as we can tell “Lord Pity Us All” never appeared on one of Dr. John’s own albums, and made its debut in this recording by Wilson Pickett. His album Right On came out the same year as Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, and was about as well-received by critics. We have always disagreed and enjoy its more gospel-leaning style to the slicker style of his seventies albums.
Wilson Pickett’s style was established during his early career as a member of the Violinaires, a gospel quartet with which he toured for four years before his first secular success with the Falcons (“I Found a Love,” which launched his solo career in a re-recording). Many of his albums had tunes like “Lord Pity Us All,” and his interpretations of hits like “Hey Jude” were very similar to the music he likely sang with the Violinaires.
“Lord Pity Us All” is an unique example of Rebennack’s lyrical style, which is sometimes lost in the surreal, psychedelic-infused gumbo of his classic voodoo style. It may reflect his New Orleans years of addiction and crime, and also owes a certain artistic debt to Allen Toussaint. And some days it’s just how we feel.
We have a love/hate relationship with the Moog Synthesizer, simply meaning we sometimes love its sound and sometimes hate it. There’s no denying the extent to which it changed popular music after its introduction in the 1960s. There’s an extraordinary documentary about its inventor, Dr. Robert Moog, which you are likely to enjoy if you enjoy popular music. We’re gonna put it here in case you have the time to watch it — or the guy in the next office can’t hear that you’re watching TV on your computer.
One of the Moog’s most enthusiastic proponents was keyboardist Richard Hayman, who recorded frequently for ABC’s Command series. The liner notes to his 1969 album Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine were especially optimistic for the future role of the Moog Synthesizer in popular music:
Moog — The very name of the instrument conjures up all sorts of mental visions of new, strange, wonderful musical sounds — Ah! but “Beware the ides of Moog” — for here is an instrument capable of so many diverse sounds and combinations of sounds it staggers the imagination of anyone — musician, arranger, or just plain listener. An embarrassment of riches so to speak — for with such an extremely varied musical palette at his disposal the arranger is most likely to fall into the common trap of writing too much.
No other instrument known today is capable of producing so many diversified sounds that can be so completely wild and yet so completely controlled. It can wail like a banshee or be soft and mellow like a muted cello. It produces a bass line so clear and devoid of confusing muddying overtones that the result can range from pleasant subtleness to absolutely terrifying power.
The Moog Synthesizer is not, as some people think, an instrument to take the place of all other instruments any more than the electric organ supplants the piano. But when used with other conventional instruments the Moog increases the range of tonal combinations and musical sounds (and unmusical sounds) in the conventional by a huge percentage. Consequently the coming years must see an ever increasing use of this extremely versatile and unusual instrument. We have finally left behind the days when “electronic music” meant only a few strange bleeps and bloops and unearthly wails; now we have learned to integrate the Synthesizer with the orchestra as an instrument capable of holding its own as a true musical factor.
Hayman, not to be confused with the more jazz-oriented popular pianist Dick Hyman even though they both made Moog albums, may speak with authority on the subject of musical arrangement: that was his job at the Boston Pops for decades, and his work is heard on possibly countless albums. His entertaining electronic albums express a warm, wide-eyed welcome to innovations like the Moog Synthesizer, even though his work was primarily in very traditional forms. Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine is popular with DJs because it’s bizarre arrangements of songs like “The Peanut Vendor” and “Hare Krishna” (from the musical Hair) are ripe with vibrant breaks for sampling.
“The Peanut Vendor” by Richard Hayman
The enormous success of Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach LP in 1968 inspired so many imitators it would take a serious collector to track them all down. Moog arrangements of everything from Bacharach to Hank Williams were featured for entire albums, and many more like Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine rehashed familiar hits like “The Girl from Ipanema” or “Gentle on my Mind.” Few of these records are actually any good, leading over time to a popular disinterest in the instrument.
Additional models — especially the smaller, easier-to-use MiniMoog — sustained the instrument’s popularity for a period into the 80s, but it seems the primary appearance of the Moog Synthesizer today is in the form of samples. This album was sampled by the Unibroz in 1998 (“Sippy Cup”) as well as by Fantastic Plastic Machine the same year. Other Moog samples appear prominently in tracks by Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, J Dilla, Busta Rhymes, Black Milk, Quasimoto, Beck and others. Ironically, many are taken from covers of popular tunes like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” or classical works like Claude Debussy’s Claire De Lune, making the actual origin of the musical inspiration difficult to trace. We suppose this is the way of the modern world.
“Your friend is quite the mercenary, I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.”
- Princess Leia
From the title to the last track, this new album by Dingus has a familiar sense of punk rock apathy, but Who Cares? is hardly the garden variety outing its cover implies — in fact, the album is a fine example of what a new and more dynamic pop punk could be.
“I think, therefore I’m stupid,” sings bassist Jonathan Walters near the end of this hugely entertaining collection of songs by the trio he’s fronted since junior high school. “Epistemology” isn’t the best track on Who Cares? but it does encapsulate much of the over-wrought anxieties in the album with a strangely comforting mixture of mopey self-depreciation and unappreciated intellect.
And while Walters’ alternately hilarious and heavy lyrics are a highlight, what makes Who Cares? such a gem is the album’s stellar performances of superb arrangements. The first track really sets it up well, with a lot of energy and shades of 90s punk like NOFX or late-era Mr T Experience.
Our favorite song on the album — one of our favorite local songs of the year so far — is “Positive QI,” a tune which could have come from Avenue Q. This theatrical number takes on the album’s themes with wit and an unrestrained desire to entertain, and it really succeeds in every way.
In fact, what keeps up putting Who Cares? on the platter is how successfully its eleven tracks are separate from standard pop format and take on a Broadway-ish quality, both in Walters narratives and the band’s interplay. We’ve been writing for years that Sesame Street (specifically its musical directors Joe Raposo and Jeffrey Moss) are our generations Beatles and here’s some concrete proof. “Positive QI” and several other songs on Who Cares? are a product of the theatrical revival inspired by their music. Maybe Walters and crew found the Broadway approach through The Simpsons or South Park, but its still something you can trace back to Sesame Street. Our impression could be a stretch, but we hear a lot of the human pathos of theater music in this album — of course, two of our most favorite ever punk rock bands are Hickey and Schlong (whose adaptation of West Side Story was one of the most brilliant records of the 90s!). Punk rock just works well with musicals in a way other pop music doesn’t.
Every groove of Who Cares? is still filled with catchy hooks, fist pumping moments (as in a track which tells the story of a Soviet soldier at the Battle of Kursk) and head-banging riffs. Dingus manage to transition from the turning point on the Eastern front to a story about a zombie family living “happily ever after,” complete with an Iron Maiden riff and an Elvira’s Movie Macabre flair, without anything seeming out of a place.
Walters, who plays bass, is joined by guitarist Sam Beer and drummer Parker Thompson. They’ve been playing together for so long that Walters’ songs seem to be written specifically to bring out their best, as in the way Duke Ellington said he didn’t write for a instrument but for a instrument as performed by a specific member of his orchestra. While we were introduced to Beer as a member of the blue collar Springsteen ♥ing Blue Diamond Band, he’s more inclined to indulge punk rock and metal tendencies in this setting. His best playing on the album is in the unforced melding of these two impulses, as on the album’s opener “IROB” and in “The Zombies.” Thompson isn’t for a moment behind the other two, in fact he has to hold together some of the more unusual transitions like the introduction to “The Zombies” or the hilarious middle eight in the frantic minute and a half of “Arbitrary Fantasy.” Walters delivers the best lines (like “the empty bottles fuck up this house’s feng shui”) much like the Mr. T Experience’s Dr. Frank — we’d rank him with Rob Taxpayer as the most entertaining frontman to perform here at Hymie’s.
Someone (who’d like to be anonymous) loves the band and told us, “It’s sad because they’re one of the best pop punk bands in the cities, and when I go to their shows there’s hardly anyone there.” It almost seems fitting for Walters’ lyrics, and for a band that’s written on their Bandcamp page: “We no longer believe ‘success’ means making tons of money. Rather, we now hold the notion that success means: not making money. Thus, we’re successful as fuck.” Our hope is that Who Cares? will be for Dingus what the Battle of Kursk was for the Soviets, the turning of the tide that maybe, just maybe, will change the entire world. Maybe that’s a lot of hope. We think too much.
Oliver Nelson’s 1961 LP The Blues and the Abstract Truth is one of the most interesting jazz albums issued by Impulse Records during its fifteen year run. A remarkable all-star band is featured in the album, and several soloists are captured at transitional points in their career. In many ways the record is similar to the modal jazz established with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and two performers — bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans — are heard on both records. Nelson’s compositions are far more complex than the rough head arrangements which formed the framework for Kind of Blue‘s five tracks, but the album explores the same slow-paced harmonic development.
The opening tune, “Stolen Moments,” is sublime: although framed by an elaborate sixteen bar theme the song features four minor key solos on a basic 12-bar blues. Freddie Hubbard, who had just begun his transition out of hard bop into more progressive jazz (appearing on Coltrane’s first Impulse album and beginning a collaboration with Wayne Shorter the same year) performs a stunning solo. Nelson’s is, like his compositional style, cautiously paced and measured. We’ve always thought it felt pre-meditated — he does the same thing on the second side in “Teenie’s Blues.” Bill Evans is one of the most interesting personalities on the album, and his appearance is of interest because he so rarely after the early 60s performed in ensemble settings.
Evans’ best contribution on the album is on the second side, in a faster blues tune called “Butch and Butch,” where he dances through several bars with a light Basie-eque grace. And the very best solo on the album is Dolphy’s alto sax solo in “Yearnin’,” which hints at the wild style he would perfect a few years later with his very best album, Out to Lunch.
Nelson makes “special mention of [the] fine work” of baritone saxophonist George Bowering in the album’s notes. Bowering does not solo, but his role is pretty essential to the arrangements, especially “Stolen Moments.” The album is a great collaborative work, considering the band didn’t play together before or after (although several members did often collaborate). Roy Haynes is fairly restrained throughout, especially compared to what he was recording with Roland Kirk around the same time, and bassist Paul Chambers is as awesome and reliable as expected — the contrast of styles between the rest is what makes The Blues and the Abstract Truth such an interesting album.
Nelson recorded a follow-up for Impulse three years later. It features a larger group, but less innovative arrangements. None of the performers (including Nelson himself) appear on More Blues and the Abstract Truth, which is sort of a disappointing sequel — the album has a Weekend at Bernies II quality in spite of all the talented musicians who perform on it.
Blue guitarist B.B. King passed away today at the age of eighty-nine in his home in Las Vegas. He will be remembered by countless fans and musicians as one of the most influential performers in the history of American music.
We think one of the most inspiring things about King’s life is how much he performed. Even into his seventies the “King of the blues” played 250 shows a year. Audiences could always be counted on to hear about his very special guitar, named Lucille. He often explained how the Gibson ES-355 “saved [his] life two or three times,” attributing extraordinary feats to the guitar.
The origin of the guitar’s name also provided an exciting story for King’s audiences: he would explain how he was playing in a hall in Arkansas in 1949 when a fight between two men knocked over the kerosene barrel which heated the room. After evacuating with everyone else, King ran back in to get his guitar, which had cost him thirty dollars. He was later told the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille.
Still is often called “the Dean of African-American composers” in the liner notes to album including his compositions — or the Dean of black composers or the Dean of negro composers, depending on when the record was produced. All of this places the composer and his more than 150 works into a tidy pigeonhole for the scholar and the historian, but does little for those of us who listen to music for enjoyment. William Grant Still was, surely, a pioneer — being the first African-American to have his symphonies and opera produced by major companies — but he was first and foremost an American composer. We do not regard Copland as an Anglo-American composer and we ought to afford Still the same respect, especially considering his music is a national treasure.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi but spent his youth in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his mother moved after the death of his father. Still’s step-father, Charles B. Shepperson, encouraged his interest in music by buying him records and taking him to performances. His grandmother taught him traditional spirituals. After graduating from a segregated high school, Still attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
Still enlisted in the United States Navy and served our country during the first World War. He resumed his studies after returning, for a time he was a student of Edgar Varèse. Still’s first professional work was with W.C. Handy’s orchestra, and later arranging James P. Johnson’s ambitious Yamecraw. His career as an arranger and performer provided him the opportunity to compose and the exposure to present his work — leading to his many “firsts” in African-American history: Still was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936) and also the first to have his own symphonic work performed (his Symphony no. 1 “Afro American” was debuted by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra in 1931). The third of his eight operas was the first to be performed by a major American company (The New York City Opera) in 1939.
His music implies an enormous range of influences, from Stravinsky to stride piano. Many of his compositions were about the African-American experience and many others about the wider American experience. Still’s song cycle And They Lynched Him On A Tree, first performed in 1940, is one of the most alarming condemnations of racial violence you’d ever find on record (if you can find one — record companies weren’t in a hurry to release such revolutionary recordings). The operatic work featuring a narrator and two choruses and is more courageously ‘punk rock’ or ‘street’ than anything we’ve ever heard.
His first symphony was first performed in 1931 and adds to the familiar orchestra a celeste and a tenor banjo. It’s composition was influenced by the short-lived poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, but is also remarkable for its combination of neo-classicism and evolving blues. It is just about the most uniquely American piece of music you’ll ever find.
Still lived, wrote and taught for a half-century after writing his first symphony. Our nation changed and our relations with each other changed enormously during those many years — sadly, there had been no revival of his music (at least Copland can claim composing the song for the dreadful “Beef — It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign). We think Still ought to be regarded as one of the great American composers, if only because his work so often integrated the music of everyone who settled in this country. His Symphony no. 1 “Afro American” is an excellent example of his ability to combine cultural influences.
One last thing about William Grant Still is of particular interest to record collectors: he served as the musical director for the Black Swan Phonograph Corporation, which was the first significant record label owned and operated by African-Americans. His colleagues in the record business included the great bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson, who often accompanied blues singers on recording sessions, and W.E.B. DuBois, who served on the label’s board of directors.
The label was named for the 19th century soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called “The Black Swan” by her fans. Black Swan 78s are fairly rare, but not unaffordable if you can find them. Ethel Waters was the top-selling singer on the label, and other performers include Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin. Maybe you could find a copy at our favorite place to look for 78s, Vintage Music Company.
William Grant Still’s Symphony no. 1 “Afro-American” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1974, conducted by Paul Freeman:
Lento, con risoluzione