Songs

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Louis Armstrong is so monumental in the history of American music, it’s hard to imagine a time prior to his prominence. You’d almost think he was born (on July 4th, of course) already the most important cornetist in the world. In fact, until 1926, the year Okeh Records began releasing singles by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, the young cornetist was known only to the hippest of jazz listeners as an exceptional sideman.

And those records were nearly issued as Richard M. Jones and his Hot Five. When Armstrong returned to Chicago after an engagement with Fletcher Henderson had brought him to New York in 1925, he did a couple one-off appearances on sessions for the Okeh, appearing on records with Jones and singer Bertha “Chippie” Hill, a blues singer. The label’s A&R man, Tommy Rockwell, saw his potential and decided Armstrong should become a regular.

The plan to assemble an all-star band of New Orleans musicians in Chicago was hatched, and this is how it nearly became Richard M. Jones’ band. Previous successful jazz singles in the same vein had all been by established groups (like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or King Oliver’s Orchestra, who had first brought Armstrong to Chicago three years earlier), and the idea of assembling a band for recording sessions was relatively novel. Already taking a risk, the label wanted an established name on the records — record executives, even ninety years ago, were pretty short-sighted.

It’s said the modest Armstrong demurred, at least according to Jones, but what’s certain is that it was Lil Armstrong who insist it be her husband be the session’s leader and she play piano. And so Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five were born, featuring Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. The group made its first recordings on November 12, 1925.

photo (3)Columbia Records, who operated Okeh Records as a subsidiary, has kept the Hot Five (and later the Hot Seven) recordings in print in a variety of forms, including as part of an early LP series The Louis Armstrong Story, and collected on their own. In our own collection are all three volumes from the 1980s Columbia Jazz Masterpieces Series, which collect many but not all of the recordings. Two of our favorite songs come from the third session, June 1926, when Armstrong’s range and his vocals really begin to become incredible.

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“Don’t Forget to Mess Around”

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“King of the Zulus”

James M. Jones never recorded with the Hot Five, and it was another pianist, Earl Hines, who rose to due prominence with the band. He did produce the early Hot Five records. Nearly the leader of these seminal jazz sessions, Jones hardly recorded under his own name. He led a studio band, the Jazz Wizards, and later worked as a jazz producer for Decca and Mercury Records, always maintaining a connection between the roots of jazz and its new directions.

photo (1)This 1988 self-titled album by Lucinda Williams is now considered a classic in the then-unnamed genre of Americana. One song from the record (“Passionate Kisses”) was given the Best Country Song Grammy six years later when covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and by then Williams was considered one of the best songwriters in in the genre.

Our favorite thing about Lucinda Williams is “Changed the Locks,” a break-up tune which is more blues than country. It’s not just any break-up tune, but maybe the best ever. What seems at first the story of a victim is in fact an expression of empowerment. It may be that the target of her exclusion has previously followed her and “knocked [her] off her feet” — but these terrible things will happen no longer because she will no longer allow it.

You may point out how the song slips into fantasy, when Williams sings she has “changed the tracks underneath the train” and “changed the name of this town.” We suggest the song is one of empowerment because she also sings that her lover (or whoever it is) “can’t trace her path” and “can’t hear her laugh.” Whether it is her first husband, drummer Greg Sowders from the Long Ryders, is uncertain. What is certain is that the song coincides with a successful upturn in Williams’ life.

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Her first two, recorded for Smithsonian/Folkways a decade earlier, were then and still are sort of overlooked. But soon the thirty-five year old singer came to have plenty to laugh about — her follow-up to the self-titled album, Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, is one of the most beloved Americana albums of all time, and she has been successful ever since. Williams was married here in Minneapolis, on the stage at First Avenue after a performance, in 2009. Her most recent album, 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, was praised by the New York Times, in a review which noted, “On past albums Ms. Williams has portrayed herself at moments of rage, excess and grief; now she prefers stability.”

Whoever was the subject of “Changed the Locks” has likely been long forgotten.

photoHere’s another song for the first week of school. This one is a complaint by a St. Cloud group from the 60s who mixed right-leaning views into an amateur Homer and Jethro-ish act (lacking, unfortunately, the incredible musicianship of Jetrho Burns). Other self-released singles by the Hill-Dillies comment on the Eden Valley fox hunt and the construction of the Monticello nuclear power plant. Here they are upset about the introduction of sex education into the curriculum.

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photo (4)School starts early in Minneapolis this year — between the cool weather and the rumble of school busses, you’d think it was already September. Kids are waiting on street corners all over the city, with cold lunches and new shoes and their annual tithing of school supplies. Usually this is when we post a classic anthem of rebellion like Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” or “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” by Pink Floyd.

This year we thought we’d go in a different direction…

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“Teacher Drives me Crazy” by Prentice Moreland

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“Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen

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School is starting very early this year, so you won’t see our little boy and girl eating lunch in the booths here in the record shop again until MEA weekend. We’re going to miss having them here, and biking around the neighborhood together. Laura likes to compare our home here on East Lake Street to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and it’s a pretty good explanation for how we feel. We could wear our arms out waving to everyone on our walks to work. Even the mail carrier is our friend, and she came to our tenth anniversary party last year and brought a growler of great beer made right here in Longfellow. One of the best things about living in this neighborhood is how many good friends we have right here. It’s a pretty great place for two kids to grow up.

i believe in youHere is a song introduced to us by someone who we miss very much. It’s message is very positive, as are most songs by the “Gentle Giant” of country music, Don Williams. This one was written by the duo of Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, who were successful Nashville songwriters. Cook is probably best remembered in pop culture* as one of the three who invented the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” jingle while sitting in an airport. “I Believe in You” was just another huge country hit for Williams, but remarkable in that it was his only single to make it onto Billboard’s “Hot 100” list, too.
(*see what we did there?).

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“I Believe in You” reminds us of Paul McCartney’s “Too Many People,” a song on Ram considered to be a slight directed at John and Yoko’s activism. McCarney acknowledged as much in a October 2010 interview for Mojo.

The first line is about ‘too many people preaching practices.’ I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do. And I felt we didn’t need to be told what to do. The whole tenor of the Beatles thing had been, like, each to his own. Freedom. Suddenly it was ‘You should do this.’ It was just a bit the wagging finger, and I was pissed off with it.

In both songs, the messages of “you should do this” are dismissed, and in “I Believe in You” flatly refuted. Williams had good reason to not let anyone tell him how to live his life: the song was recorded around the same time he and his wife, Joy, celebrated their twentieth anniversary. This April it was their fifty-fifth. And while he had to reschedule some shows earlier this year, Don Williams will be back on the road again in September. Seems like he’s doing just fine on his own.

 

 

photo (4)This song from an early album by Pharoah Sanders contrasts his role in John Coltrane’s band, where he was known for his style of over-blowing and dissonance.

Thembi is also the last recording on which Sanders’ collaborated with pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, who launched his own career as a leader with an album featuring this song.

In this 2007 interview, Smith explains how he found a Fender Rhodes piano stored in the studio, and this was his first experience playing it.

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“Astral Traveling”

photo (5)We heard this song for the first time in a long while recently when this compilation album turned up. The title — The Music You Don’t Hear on the Radio…at Least for the Time Being — is probably as apt today, although you may hear some of the artists on this collection (including Pharoah, Archie Shepp, Chico Hamilton and Ahmad Jamal) on KFAI’s great Saturday morning program, Mostly Jazz.

 

red foleyRed Foley based his song “Old Shep” on Hoover, a German Shepherd he had as a child which was poisoned by a neighbor. He recorded the song three times, but the song is most known for a different reason.

Elvis Presley first public performance was on October 3, 1945 at the Mississippi-Alabama Farm and Dairy Show, when he was ten years old. He stood on a chair to reach the microphone, but came in fifth place winning fair tickets and five dollars. Elvis had been encouraged to enter the contest because his Sunday school teacher was impressed when he sang it.

Elvis performed the song again at a high school talent show in 1951, and recorded it at the 1956 session for his second album, Elvis.

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“Old Shep”

Rolling Stone named “Old Shep” one of the saddest country songs of all time in this entertaining list. Our own previous post about dogs on record covers included the happy fella sitting by Neil Young.

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