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Mary Lou Williams, who refused to be bound by a contract and even once founded her own independent label, is one of our favorite figures in jazz history. Her career outlasted the swing era and included collaborations with beboppers and free jazzers, and she was beyond simple ahead of her time. Her music was in many ways timeless.

She was connected to so many seminal moments in jazz history, performing with an early version of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians (at the age of thirteen) in 1924. A year later, while playing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Harlem, her playing so pleased Louis Armstrong that he paused in his tracks to listen before kissing her.

a kirk

Williams is best known to swing aficionados for her work with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in the 1930s. She was originally brought to Kirk’s orchestra by her first husband, John Williams, who was a saxophonist in the group. By the time she left, about a decade later, she was the primary reason for their success, which you can quickly tell from any compilation of their singles (the ones arranged by other members simply don’t swing the same). “Walking and Swinging” (1936) and “Mary’s Idea” (1938) are two of our favorites.

She began her freelance career while working for Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, who had taken a long engagement in Kansas City. She did work for Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and for Benny Goodman. One track Goodman was especially pleased with was “Roll Em.”

benny goodman camel

The King of Swing was so pleased with the theme she wrote for his NBC Radio program, sponsored by Camel cigarettes, that he tried unsuccessfully to pin Williams down with an exclusive contract. She refused and continued to work for a variety of bandleaders.

Her second husband was trumpeter Shorty Baker, and when he was briefly engaged with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, she came along and arranged her version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” for the Duke (as “Trumpet no End”), as well as adding “Walking and Swinging” to his prestigious repertoire.

One distinctive talent she shared with Ellington was an ability to arrange music to bring out the best in a specific performer. While still working for Kirk she produced “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” for Floyd Smith with the intention of highlighting his Hawaiian style on the lap steel guitar. The result is one of the earliest hit records to feature an electric guitar.

Williams made a number of her own recordings during these productive years, including a couple solo sides for Brunswick in 1930 which we would sure like to find one day. She was not, however, completely rooted in the swing era and became a close associate of Dizzy Gillespie and his wife Lorraine. Bebop musicians, notably Thelonious Monk, held her in high esteem. She had a regular program on New York’s WNEW (Mary Lou’s Piano Workshop), broadcast from Barney Josephson’s influential Cafe Society club. “During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I’d finished my last show, and we’d play and swap ideas until noon or later”, she explained to Melody Maker in a 1954 interview. Williams’ remarks reflected a welcoming attitude towards bebop and other developments in jazz not always held by members of her generation.

Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the great stars of jazz. I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.

Mary Lou maintained this attitude throughout her professional career, collaborating with free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor in 1978 on one of the most unexpectedly moving jazz albums of its era. Williams seems like one of those musicians who was capable of playing just about anything, but had the dedication to take her talent where she felt inspired.

Williams wrote or arranged a few songs for Gillespie’s experimental big band, which was one of the most interesting groups in the history of jazz (we last listened to them here, in a post about percussionist Chano Pozo). One of these songs was “In the Land of Ooh Bla Dee,” featured a fun vocal by Joe Carroll and, naturally, a great solo by Diz.

It was Gillespie who convinced Williams to come out of her brief retirement with a performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival — she is featured on his live album of the performance. Her life thereafter was focused on liturgical music and charitable work, and her compositions during this time blend jazz with choral arrangements and traditional blues. The most famous of these is her Mass for Peace, commonly called “Mary Lou’s Mass,” which was recorded in 1970.

mary lou's mass

“I am praying with my fingers when I play,” she once said, adding that she hoped to inspire people’s spirituality with her music. Williams performed her Mass on The Dick Cavett Show in August 1971. Sadly, while you’ll have no trouble finding footage of John Lennon’s jackassery on the same program, nobody has posted Williams’ performance online. Priorities, huh?

Williams’ work involved at one time operating thrift stores which supported musicians and supporting children’s music education through programs like Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile — in fact, one of her many fans was no less than Mr. Rogers, who had her as a guest on his show in 1973. And that was a clip we were happy to find.

long lone railroad track

Its a great old country train song, but we can’t help but imagine someone, somewhere, was disappointed by this release on Black Panther Records.

seventh son willie mabon

Folklore around the world attributes supernatural powers to the scion of an unbroken line of males: the seventh son of a seventh son. These are sometimes dark, demonic powers, as in Argentina, where if the seventh son of a seventh son is not baptized in seven churches he will become the lobizón, a werewolf. Other cultures bestow upon him powers of premonition, or Christ-like abilities to heal merely by touch.

In 1 Chronicles 2:15 we learn David, second sovereign of the Kingdom of Israel, was the seventh son of Jesse. Apostles Matthew and Luke later assure us the Messiah was descendent of David. The lesser prophet Gad, who in 2 Samuel 24:11-13 instructed David to return to Judah where he would ultimately rule, was the seventh son of Jacob. The Book of Gad the Seer is a lost text.

We have already written about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 masterpiece, The Invisible Man. The book comes up again in the form of Petey Wheatstraw, who Ellison’s narrator meets in Harlem, and who claims to be the seventh son of a seventh son. Wheatstraw is drawn from Peetie Wheatstraw, blues singer alternately billed on records as “The Devil’s Son in Law” and “The High Sheriff from Hell,” who may have been the source of the Robert Johnson/”Crossroads” mythology.

Willie Dixon wrote “Seventh Son” in 1955, playing bass on the original recording by Willie Mabon. He performed the song himself on a 1970 album which included other songs he’d written as a Chess sideman, including “Back Door Man” and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” both associated with Howlin’ Wolf. It has likewise been covered many times over the years — notably by Johnny Rivers on his album, Meanwhile Back at the Whiskey A Go Go, by pianist Mose Alison, the Climax Blues Band and George Thorogood. Unfortunately the song has also been recorded by Sting.

willie dixoncannonball earth

The Johnny Rivers album, his third of five ostensibly recorded the legendary Los Angeles club, sounds suspiciously to some like a studio recording with overdubbed crowd noise. Still, his “Seventh Son” peaked at, you guessed it, #7 on the singles chart.mose alison

Iron Maiden’s seventh album explored clairvoyance, madness and evil in what began as a concept album based on the seventh son of a seventh son mythology. If there is a story to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, we can’t follow it, although we’ve always considered “Can I Play with Madness?” a favorite track by the band. “Moonchild” is an entertaining entry into the hard rock obsession with occultist Aleister Crowley, and the title song places the eponymous soul at the crossroads:

Then they watch the progress he makes
The Good and the evil which path will he take
Both of them trying to manipulate
The use of his powers before it’s too late

On the jacket the tragic Eddie retains his lobotomy scar from Piece of Mind, as well as his cybertronic parts from Somewhere in Time. In addition he is disemboweled, and proffers a fetus.

iron maiden seventh

cannonball earth“Seventh Son” was one of the first songs Joe Zawinul contributed after joining the Cannonball Adderely band, then a sextet featuring Yusef Lateef. The Austrian pianist went on to contribute some of the bands’ best material for its Capitol Recordings in the mid-60s including the hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and later led Weather Report with Wayne Shorter.

“He’s always off on one trip or another,” says the band’s leader on The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Person.

Irene would like us to share her favorite Beach Boys track, the end of Pet Sounds. The album’s title is a reference to Brian Wilson and the fantastic arrangements he created on the record, largely working with session musicians without the other Beach Boys. Still, it ends with some actual pets.

Another LP ending of special interest to dogs is heard on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album widely known to have been influenced by Pet Sounds.  Here the album concludes with a lock groove, also called a loop groove, meaning that the needle will track through the same two seconds over and over. This obnoxious feature is only found on the original UK Parlaphone pressings of the album, but the two seconds of sound and voice can be heard on the US compilation Rarities.

What many people didn’t know is that the loop is preceded by a 15-kilohertz tone that will get your dog’s attention.

We have encountered a number of acetates of radio station spots and themes with lock grooves at the end of each track — the technique was originally developed by record cutters to help prevent disc jockey errors. Basically the grooves do not allow the needle to continue forward either to the label as at the end of a record or to the next track if somewhere in the middles of the side’s program. In the case of radio stations and spots the loop is simply silence, which we’ll find again in the Moby Grape recording below.

The normal groove runs to a lock groove at the end of the run out space, just outside of the needle. Sgt. Peppers may be the most famous record with a lock groove but it was not the first one we encountered.  When we were kids we did not understand the technology but loved the fact that Fozzie the Bear is left forever calling for help at the end of the Muppet Show 2, as heard here.

Arista Records, the label which released the Muppet Show 2 is also the label which released Monty Python’s vexing three-sided album (Matching Tie and Hankerchief) which features parallel grooves, meaning that two entirely separate programs could be heard on one side depending where the listener dropped the needle.  We’ll visit that anomalous record sometime in the future.

Our research suggests the earliest use of a lock groove in ‘popular’ music was a flexi disc that came with issue #3 of the short-lived multimedia magazine Aspen in 1966. The track was produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground and was titled “Loop”. On the disc it said, “final groove purposely left open.” This was, of course, not as widely distributed a release as the Beatles album.

Some years later, Cale’s bandmate Lou Reed concluded Metal Machine Music also ends with a lock groove. The the time listed for side four of the album lists it as ∞. It’s possible that nobody has ever noticed because nobody has yet made it to the end of side four. Other loop grooves in our collection appear on Sonic Youth’s Evol album, where the track’s time is likewise listed with the symbol for infinity, and on Moby Grape’s album Wow.

Wow is already an interesting album in that it was packaged along with a second separate record (Grape Jam) but the end of its first side makes it one of the most uniquely mastered albums in rock and roll.  After “Can’t It Be So” Skip Spense reminds listeners to change the record to 78 rpm for the next song. There is then a lock groove preventing the needle from moving forward. After the listener has changed the speed to 78 rpm and nudged the needle forward he or she would hear this track. We’ve left in Skip Spense’s introduction.

That’s Arthur Godfrey introducing the number and playing ukulele (oh, for the days when a Arthur Godfrey was a kick ass guest artist).  The song by Spense is called “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot”.  Surface noise has been added to increase the old time feeling of the track.  It was likely this was not an enormous inconvenience to listeners in 1969 but when three-speed turntables were more common, but it may mean trouble for many with more modern machines.

We love Duke Ellington — surely no other jazz artist is as well-represented in our collection. It’s a pleasure to pull out a stack of his records, put a favorite on and pore through the liner notes, discovering how his composing adapted to the comings and goings in his famous orchestra and learning about the unique personalities. Duke once told an interviewer that he didn’t write for a particular instrument, he wrote for a particular performer — that is, he wrote a part for Paul Gonsalves playing the tenor saxophone, not the tenor saxophone.

intimate ellingtonRecently we were listening to an album in the shop which isn’t in our collection at home, The Intimate Ellington, which Pablo released in 1977 shortly after Duke’s death. It collects spontaneous pieces from 1970-1 sessions with smaller versions of the orchestra (including two suprising Monk-ish trio performances of “Edward the First”). The liner notes by Stanley Dance describe the atmosphere of his late-period recording sessions.

intimate ellington 2It is probably not too much to say that some of the happiest hours of Duke Ellington’s life were spent in recording studios at relaxed sessions like those illustrated here. He might call them when the band was laying off as a means of getting some return from those of its members permanently on a salary, but he always liked to hear next day what he had written overnight, and sometimes the summonses to appear went out at very short notice. If the music were of an experimental character or not completely worked out, the sessions too place with a degree of secrecy, quite unlike those commissioned by major labels and attended by an enormous retinue of relatives, friends and fans. The fact that he was paying all the expenses of the date himself did not guarantee his own punctuality. He often came in late to find that musicians who had arrived on time had wandered off on a variety of errands. Johnny Hodges, say, had gone to buy grapes for his monkey, and Paul Gonsalves was across the street having “breakfast” in a bar, but so long as the bassist and drummer were present Ellington was unperturbed.

Wait, let’s back up a minute. Johnny Hodges had a monkey? A monkey?! How is this extraordinary fact passed over so quickly? How has this never been mentioned in the liner notes to the hundreds of Ellington or Hodges albums that we’ve read here in the record shop? What kind of monkey? Did it come to the sessions? Is that why he had to buy grapes for it? Was the monkey in the room when they recorded? Did it behave? Can you imagine Curious George in a recording studio?!

This can’t be a drug references. We’re familiar with forties phrases like “feed the monkey” and references to the monkey on one’s back, but Hodges — who died at sixty-four the year before the sessions collected on Intimate Ellington — didn’t have a drug problem. He was buying grapes for a pet monkey. Probably a really awesome one, probably one who did the monkey to Hodges’ 1963 b-side “Monkey Shack.”

This 1997 review of a CD reissue of Hodges’ RCA/Bluebird album Triple Play, written again by Stanley Dance, gives us a little more insight because the disc includes an out-take, “Monkey on a Limb.” The monkey’s name was Shuma. So Johnny Hodges had a monkey named Shuma. It may have attended recording sessions. It was probably the awesome-est monkey in the entire world. Maybe Shuma’s still alive, maybe Shuma will make a record someday. There can never be enough Ellington tribute albums, especially if they include a monkey playing the saxophone.

 

 

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, but 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. Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums ever made.

superfly

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.

The theme of self-reliance Curtis introduced in “No Thing on Me” from the Super Fly soundtrack was carried into Claudine by actor Lawrence Hilton Jacobs (whose own records we featured in a post about the music of Welcome Back Kotter), who opposes his mother’s abuse of the welfare system and questions whether it has had a regressive effect on his community.

claudine soundtrack

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

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:

(*We’ve said it before, it’s all about Sidney Poitier)

sparkleThe 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.

short eyes

 

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.”

Its so heartbreaking for us when an awesome band just can’t raise the cash to press their album — especially when we know there’s thousands of this out there somewhere.

thesmurfslp

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