There’s so much bad news in the paper these days, sometimes we just leave it on the kitchen table and take the dogs for a longer walk instead. This election cycle has been particularly disenfranchising, but then again maybe not much more than any other year.
We thought of this after hearing this Lou Rawls album from 1972. A Man of Value was his first record for a new label after the series of hits which made him a star at Capitol, all produced by David Axelrod. His MGM albums are a bridge between those jazzy albums and the Philadelphia soul sides he’d record with producers like Gamble & Huff at the end of the decade. This one didn’t sell as well, so you don’t come across copies as often these days, which is a shame.
The title track was a minor hit, and it mirrors Rawl’s earlier cover of John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” in its message of empowerment through self-reliance. Its sets the stage for an encouraging, positive cycle of songs. But 1972 was an election year, and Rawls remarks on the times in “The Politician,” a song which isn’t so irrelevant today.
“The Politician” was written by Mac Davis, then on his own streak of hit albums as a country singer (Davis had earlier written “In the Ghetto” for Elvis, which has a similar theme). The song doesn’t really offer any solutions, but just expresses why so many are feel frustrated with the political process.
So as to not make today’s post a big bummer, here’s that first song on the album, “A Man of Value.”
Soma records will always be synonymous with 60s Minneapolis, but the legendary local label also put out a lot of weird stuff.
Here’s a great example: this 45 by Royce Swain with Orchestra and Chorus. He was also Dr. Royce C. Swain, a dentist who wrote songs recorded by the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney, and also this gem about his home state.
The improbably named Lyle E. Style wrote a book about Roger Miller which is out of print and frustratingly pricy these days. Ain’t Got No Cigarette is hardly the lighthearted romp you’d like to read after listening to ol’ saws like “Dang Me” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.” Miller was achingly akin to the tramp in “King of the Road,” except he didn’t seem to have, in real life, the same confidence.
The hardest thing about reading Ain’t Got No Cigarettes is that you realize he was an exceptional songwriter, and even more of a genuine troubadour than the people interviewed for the book — which includes recollections of Waylon, Kristofferson, Merle and Willie — but no one ever had any idea. “You don’t know what you got ’til its gone,” and so on. Roger Miller gave up on the music industry because it gave up on him: his really brilliant songs were rejected because an industry and an audience wanted him to keep making the gug-gug-gug sound from “Dang Me.” Nobody saw him as more than a novelty act, and ironically he saw life as just about the same.
A li’l postscript: We don’t want to brag, but the superhero the world knows as DJ Truckstache is a good friend of ours. He’ll be spinning his unique blend of 45rpm gems at our block party this year, just as he has each of the past five years.
That first year (like all big things, it started small if also ambitious) he played his copy of “Where Have All the Average People Gone?” by Roger Miller. Its in better shape than ours. Ol’ Truckstache played it our favorite song just as “the Amazing Rex” was juggling fire.
Amine Claudine Myers’ third album was a tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith, with one side of Smith’s songs and one side of originals written by Myers in the same style.
Myers joined Chicago’s AACM early in her career, and has recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Arthur Blythe and other post-bop and avant-garde artists.
Bessie Smith recorded “Wasted Life Blues” in October, 1929 with James P. Johnson on piano. It was not one of her more successful singles.
Myers’ interpretation is characterized by the ageless sophistication and grace one associates with the Chicago jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. She is accompanied on this album by Jimmy Lovelace and bassist extraordinaire Cecil McBee, but her solo introduction to “Wasted Life Blues” is the highlight of the record.
Myers relocated to New York and later Europe. In 1985 she toured with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and in the 90s played with jazz/funk supergroup Third Rail.
Speaking of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden’s original 1970 album is one of our “desert island” records, a must-have in our collection. A masterful amalgam of Spanish folk and free jazz, the record features exceptional talents: Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd all contribute notable performances, and Sam Brown (of Keith Jarrett’s “American band” at the time) provides brilliantly colorful interludes on the acoustic guitar. What is so enjoyable about Liberation Music Orchestra is the ensemble playing throughout the album, and this is the work of pianist Carla Bley.
The first side of the album is essentially a single suite, opening and closing with original melodies by Bley (“The Introduction” and “The Ending to the First Side”) and in between encompassing music of the Spanish Civil War, explosive free jazz arrangements and surreal moments of musique concrète. Bley makes clever use of Bertoit Brecht’s “United Front Song” and “Viva La Quince Brigada” (popularized with the American left by Pete Seeger in 1943), all the while holding together a large free jazz ensemble more successfully than any of her contemporaries.
Carla Bley’s credits extend far beyond this album and beyond the bounds of jazz. She was a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, with whom she recorded her epic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill in 1971, and also wrote and produced a solo album by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. More recently, she has led a big band, although her last release was a collection of trio performances featuring long-time collaborator, bassist Steve Swallows and British saxophonist Andy Shephard.
When she was young, Nina Simone studied at the Juilliard School of Music until she could not afford the tuition, after earlier auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her dream was to become a classical musician, but she worked as a cocktail pianist to pay for her private lessons. At Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar & Grill, she was given a raise if she would sing as well as play the piano — here she soon developed a following for her distinctive style.
So far as we have found, there are few instrumentals in Simone;s recorded catalog: these appear on the live album early in her career. Nina Simone at Town Hall includes an instrumental introduction to “Summertime” and on Nina at the Village Gate there is an extended and exceptional improvisation on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is as good as anything the top tier trios was recording in 1961.
Simone recorded one album without any accompanying musicians — Nina Simone and Piano — but she sings on all of its ten tracks. She felt it was one of her best albums, although it was not commercially successful. Most of her later albums include large arrangements and feature her primarily as a vocalist, in spite of her original, imitable style.
Her flair for theatrics is apparent on another well-known protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn,” which appeared on the 1964 album Nina Simone In Concert. Simone opens the song humorously before singing a scathing response to the murder of Medgar Evers.
Nina Simone is probably more influential as a singer than as a pianist, but she would have been the first to remark that the two were simultaneous, and intricately related to one another. She was certainly one of the most versatile jazz pianist of her generation.
On her last album, A Single Woman, Simone only played the piano on one song, “Just Say I Love Him.” The album was recorded in 1993, and owing to her declining health, Simone did not make another record before passing away from breast cancer a decade later.