The Contralto and a Tremolo Guitar

Kot, Greg. I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. Scribner: New York. 2014.

The young, wholesome face of Mavis Staples graces the cover of this book, but the person who attracted the most attention from me was Pops Staples, the family patriarch. The success of the Staple Singers as stirring gospel performers is attributed to Pops’ direction and management; their spiritual sincerity began with him and stayed with the family despite the money-making demands of the pop recording industry, the changing tastes of the black audience, and the gospel police.

Author Greg Kot is a long-term music critic for the Chicago Tribune. In his book you can find in-depth descriptions of the process of recording song tracks and whole albums of The Staple Singers and the recording artist Mavis Staples; the completeness rivals the liner notes written for any gospel, soul, and R&B record–this is a strength of the book. Another highlight is the historical material Kot gathered from two general sources: recent interviews he conducted with family members Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples; and, the unpublished memoir prepared by Pops Staples. The latter provides accounts of his hardscrabble life in Mississippi, Pops’ working life in Chicago, and family travels to perform in Southern churches—Mavis drove the Cadillac while the family slept, and Pops packed a gun to encourage fair play from festival promoters.

The book begins with an interesting discussion of the early life of Roebuck Staples in the Mississippi Delta. The boy, who as a man was known as “Pops,” grew up in a sharecropping family, absorbing the lifestyle common to rural blacks in the early twentieth century. The slavery-era plantations remained, but the land had been parceled out to tenants who farmed the land for a share of the food crop and little sustenance money. Married at eighteen, Roebuck Staples moved his growing family to Chicago’s South Side like so many other roots musicians seeking improved conditions for the family and professional music opportunity.

There is slight mention of Pops working in the awful meat packing plants on the South Side—they were referred to locally as “the Stockyards.” Kot provides no details of Pops’ actual job, but my image of the workplace is of immigrants and the poorly educated working with knives and in freezing meat lockers; read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for a muckraker’s account. He also worked in the steel mills of Gary, Ind., another common wage-provider for the unskilled black workingmen living on the South Side in the 1950s.  On weekends, the musical family performed at Chicago churches and drove hundreds of miles to perform gospel music in the rural churches and cities of the Deep South; e.g. Jackson, Memphis, and Atlanta. Pops played tremolo guitar, and future solo recording star Mavis sang contralto. When the voice of oldest son Pervis changed as a young teen, Mavis, a small person with a big voice, became the lead vocalist. Pops also vocalized, and the three daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis provided the harmonies.

While reading with an increasing regard for the work of Pops Staples as patriarch and singing family group leader, the warmth turned to chill with the chapter on family tragedy. Pops had left a loaded gun in his home, a home occupied by a daughter dealing with depression. The youngest member of the family went into a back room and shot herself. A weapon meant to defend the family took one member away and emotionally hurt the others. Without the inclusion of this episode in the book, author Kot would have us believe the Staples folks are near perfect; Pervis Staples’ nickname was “Blab” because he talked a lot, but I think that was just his friends having a joke.

The most well-known gospel singer in Chicago and nationally was Mahalia Jackson. She became a friend of the family. In the early years, the Staples could also count as friends and neighbors Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor. A frequent visitor from Detroit was Aretha Franklin. The Staples shared the socio-political stage with Martin Luther King and Jessie Jackson. And, the reader is teased with a lengthy account of Mavis’ relationship with the then folk singer Bob Dylan. In addition to Dylan, Levon Helm of the group The Band, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince provided friendship, songs, and/or produced albums for the Staple Singers and Mavis Staples.

The Civil Rights Movement aided the career of gospel singers. The hymns sung by black church choirs became the songs of the marching protestors. The songs and the singers, like the Staple family members, inspired poor and oppressed people to push the fight for equality and justice. The Staples delivered the message in performance, although their recordings over time were to take on an increasing number of secular tracks. The musicians familiar with their progression attest to the everlasting presence of a spirtual undertone–the Staple Singers remained a gospel group and interwove spiritual songs into their larger performance repertoire.

When the Staple Singers were signed to a contract with Stax Records by executive Al Bell in 1968, the company star was Isaac Hayes; previous to that, it was Otis Redding. The first two Staples albums, the second a solo album for Mavis, were unsuccessful. Bell elected to move the group from Memphis, where the principle session men were Booker T & the M.G.’s musicians, over to a newly established independent studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Steve Cropper, the young white guitarist for Booker T, came along to produce the new album, We’ll Get Over, as he had done with the group’s first, Soul Folk in Action. The Staples family loved working on the songs, which were a mix of gospel sentiments and also covers of songs popularized by Joe South, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Guess Who and others—the group was transitioning from gospel to pop. For this book Steve Cropper was interviewed by Kot: “If there was a downside to working with them (the Staples), there were restrictions from going all-out at first because Pop wasn’t ready to make the leap to what he considered pop music. . . I should say lyrically reluctant because they had that dance element creeping in with our rhythm section. . . It wasn’t until later with Al Bell that they got more down-and-dirty sounding, with meaningful lyrics, and the hits started to come(139).”

The family would attribute the song hits to the outstanding musicians at Muscle Shoals—David Hood on bass, Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, and Eddie Hinton on rhythm and lead guitar. Mavis put it like this: “That was a rhythm to die for; they were funky, and they helped make us sound funky.” Kot: “Their bond with the Staple Singers was especially tight, due in no small part to the family’s easygoing warmth.” From Johnson: “They were huggers. . . We’d get a hug at the beginning and end of the week.” Johnson’s mom and dad would host meals for all interested, “country-fried beefsteak, cream potatoes, brown gravy, black-eyed peas, and corn on the cob. Her homemade pies rivaled those of Mom Staples(170).”

Kot describes Stax executive and record producer Al Bell’s plan at these Muscle Shoals recording sessions: “He (Bell) wanted the Staple Singers interacting with the musicians so there was a genuine dialogue; the rhythm track would be nailed down in tandem with live vocals, and then the Staples would go to Ardent Studios in Memphis to refine and overdub the finished vocals with Bell and engineer Terry Manning.” Two major hits resulted from this combined team effort, “Respect Yourself,” and “I’ll Take You There.” Career success took off from there.

Mavis Staples continues to record solo albums with her band and producers like Ry Cooder, Levon Helm, and Prince. Her 2005 CD release titled We’ll Never Turn Back fell into my hands unexpectedly. My brother, who worked as a community organizer for a time on the South Side, chose to celebrate the presidential election victory of Barack Obama by gifting me and others with a copy—it contains many songs of inspiration and hope. Thanks, brother.


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by | March 13, 2014 · 4:48 pm

Gregg and Duane Were Brothers

Allman, Gregg with Alan Light. My Cross to Bear. William Morrow: New York, NY. 2012. 378 pages.

Gregg and Duane in Muscle Shoals, AL

Gregg Allman and Duane Allman in Muscle Shoals, AL

Duane and Gregg Allman grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and as teenagers lived with their mother in Daytona Beach, Florida. Duane is the recognized organizer and driving force of the original Allman Brothers Band (ABB); Gregg continues to be the primary songwriter and vocalist of this blues group. The book is a complete autobiography of the life of Gregg and a rich source of material on the life of Duane. Duane, a year older, died in a high-speed motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, two years after the band was formed. The bass player of the band, Barry Oakley, died approximately one year later also on a motocycle. The band, following personnel changes and numerous disbandings and reformations, continues to tour and record to this day. The band was a success from the start, but they were so different and innovative–their first two albums, though considered today to be great, did not sell heavily. That was okay; they knew they had something special and a great future if they maintained the brotherhood. After earlier years of doubt and disappointment, things just came together for the brothers Allman.

The discussion here is not of the greatness of ABB, but the life and times of Gregg and Duane prior to the formation of the band in 1969.The title of the book is taken from the song title, “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”– side one, second song, from the first ABB album entitled The Allman Brothers Band. In life, the crosses born by Gregg have been many. The brothers’ father was shot dead when Gregg was about two years old. When he was entering third grade, his mother shipped him and Duane off to military school fifty miles from home so she could complete studies to become a CPA; this was a lonely time for Gregg. Later in the book he sites loneliness as the reason for his six marriages. Back in the Nashville public schools for fifth grade, the older brother Duane was tough on him. Gregg tries to find value in these experiences: his Mom was doing what was best for them, and Duane’s bullying helped prepare him up for life. Other challenges in his life and not for discussion here are the alcohol and heroin addiction that had him in recovery many times, the five divorces, and the differences with band mate Dickey Betts that together with the aforementioned issues lead to the numerous band breakups. Cirrhosis of the liver lead to a successful liver transplant surgery in 2010.

A second stint at the Tennessee military school ended when the brothers simply walked away; they returned to Daytona Beach to form a band in the 1965 called the Allman Joys. Gregg finished high school. From the beginning the music was all blues. They played everywhere and often for free–just for an opportunity to play. No more formal schooling; they were committed to music. They played The Ventures, Eddie Hinton songs, and their psychedelic version of “Tobacco Road.” They began working on an unclaimed folk tune that would carry over to the Allman Brothers Band, “Trouble No More.” Gregg explained, “We also did a lot of old ethnic stuff . . . you could take some of those old album cuts, and there would be something on there–a hook that you could change or something–and who gives a damn who wrote it? It just had that old time feel to it, and we loved it (63). These were “traditional” folk tunes anyone could play and record, but not legally claim, for their own.

If you experienced the Viet Nam era military draft process, you have heard similar stories. Duane attempted draft avoidance by wearing panties to his induction physical, but the ploy failed with the induction official grabbing the garment and throwing it against the wall. The last ditch attempt to avoid induction was to put his hands in his pockets during the induction oath. He was sent home to await the arrival of a federal marshal and delivery to Fort Leavenworth, but the marshal never showed up. Facing army induction the following year, Gregg hosted a “foot-shooting party;” he was careful to shoot between the bones. He reported the following day on crutches with a huge bandage and was sent home. Not a word was written of the military, Viet Nam, nor that foot again. It sounds too easy to be true, but it is written in this book.

Assisting a guy with a paper route during his school years, Gregg made enough money to buy his first guitar, a “finger bleeder,” for twenty-two dollars. Simultaneously, Duane’s motorcycle broke down and he started playing Gregg’s guitar and the two fought over it. In the peacemaking process, Gregg showed Duane how to find his way around the guitar. Rather than do homework, Gregg played “constantly, day and night. My brother was worse, because he would play all day long, while my mother was at work. My brother passed me up in a flash–he got real good. . . That passion was second only to a woman, and it was one of them definite loves, because your guitar ain’t gonna leave ya, just like your dog ain’t gonna leave ya. He had a real love affair with that guitar (34).”

The brothers joined a band lead by Floyd Miles. Only one guitar player was needed, so “we’d switch off every other night.” Duane was getting better playing lead and also sang, but was not good at it.  “Now, he damn sure couldn’t sing, as you can tell by some of the recordings he made. . . when I started singing, that was the best me and Duane ever got along during my whole damn childhood.”  To resolve differences, Duane had encouraged Gregg to learn to sing. Gregg conceded Duane’s superior guitar play with this comment, “. . . you quit school and have had nothing to do for a whole year but sit home every day and play (46).” Agreeing to concede to strength is the basis for a trade agreement.

By late summer of 1965, the Allman Joys band was on the road playing from Pensacola to St. Louis. Gregg met John Loudermilk who mentored him in the art of song-writing, “John Loudermilk taught me to let the song come to me, not to force it, not to put down a word just because it might rhyme or fit. He taught me to let the feeling come from your heart and go to your head.” On the road between Nashville and St. Louis regularly, “we played five sets a night, forty-five minutes a set, six nights a week.” The roadhouse crowds were working class and demanding. “Everybody would request whatever was real hot on the charts, and you’d better know how to play that son of a bitch, and if not, you better learn it tomorrow afternoon. . . the old roadhouses had chicken wire in front of the band so they won’t get hit by the bottles (69).”

I’ll let Gregg describe how he was to begin playing organ. It started with the first Allman Joys tour on a stop in Pensacola when a female friend and her mother bought him a Vox organ because they wanted him to have it. “At first, there wasn’t a lot I could do on it. . . When it came time to play ‘Wooly Bully,’ I could do it on the Vox. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ no problem—I had it. The organ came with a plastic card that was laminated, and it went A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and major, minor, augmented, third, ninth, fifth, and there was a little picture in each block, with little red dots showing where your fingers go. That’s how I learned to play keyboard.” Later in Birmingham Gregg picked up a used Leslie 147 amp and “. . . hooked it up and ran it through a Beatle Top amp, and that son of bitch sounded real close to a Hammond (B3 organ), which added so many dynamics to the band (70).” Shortly after the Allman Brothers Band was formed and perceived success was imminent, the members bought Gregg a Hammond B3 and he has been a fixture on the organ ever since.

Duane was a great slide guitar player and Gregg has the story: “It was his birthday (and he had a cold), so I went and bought him a bottle of Coricidin. . . Then I went by the record store and got that first Taj Mahal record, with all the butterflies on the cover and him sitting on a rocking chair. We’d played with Taj before, borrowed an amplifier from him. So I got Duane that record and the pills.” Gregg took the gifts over to Duane’s and left them on his front porch. Twenty-four hours later, Duane called, “Get over here quick, babybrah (for baby brother). Quick, man!” Duane had taken the pills out of the bottle and removed the label. “He put on that Taj Mahal record, with Jesse Ed Davis playing slide on ‘Statesboro Blues,’ and started playing along with it. When I left those pills by his door, he hadn’t known how to play slide. From the moment that Duane put that Coricidin bottle on his ring finger, he was a natural (90).” Of course, he then practiced for hours at a time with the same passion he displayed when he learned to play guitar–another story of the muse, passion, and practice combining to produce excellence on an instrument.

Band members from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band discovered the Allman Joys playing in St. Louis-Nashville and convinced them to come to Los Angeles and sign a recording contract with Liberty Records. Their first album under the band name Hour Glass and including, along with Gregg and Duane, Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby, was a big flop. On top of that, Liberty imposed restrictions on the frequency of band performances–the band felt their progress was being impeded. They were able to make forays into venues like the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and the Fillmore West, where they played sets in front of The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and Moby Grape; and, at this time Gregg befriended LA luminaries like Jackson Browne and Steve Stills.

Like all newly-formed bands with a contract, the Hour Glass was struggling to find their professional selves. The bass man of this five-piece group “took a whole handful of acid and never quite came back;” he had to go home to Alabama. Considering hiring a West Coast bass player, “. . . if they ain’t from the South, just forget about it. It would be like trying to train an accountant to be a bouncer.” At this time, they were playing blues and R&B; people from Liberty Records were telling them to play popular music. The brothers objective was to play their own music—“It’s like the difference between owning a car and being a cabdriver.” Lastly, some of the same people were telling Gregg to move out front where a vocalist belongs; he writes “As long as it sounds good, why should it matter if someone is standing up or sitting down? Sounding good was what mattered, and my brother really believed that (91).”  The replacement on bass guitar was Pete Carr from Port Orange, Florida; he worked out well and the second Hour Glass album was much improved over the first; plus, Gregg had seven original songs on it with the one exception being “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.

Due to continuing philosophical differences with Liberty, the Hour Glass disbanded. Duane returned to Florida and the others went their separate ways. They all resented Gregg for staying in California, but Gregory thought it necessary to fulfill contractual obligations with Liberty. While on the West Coast, he worked hard at songwriting and produced the basic formula for “Dreams,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” and “Melissa” — future popular ABB songs. Explaining this flurry of tunes, “I didn’t know why I was doing it. I guess it was because of all the emotions and feelings that were going through me every single day. I felt pretty much abandoned by my brother and the other guys. They laid some pretty heavy shit on me (101).” Gregg heard Duane was doing some great sessions work at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Gregg kept writing, while living wherever in Los Angeles. “I had access to a Hammond . . .  so I could work up some stuff with it. Half the time I was walking around and I didn’t have enough to eat (102).” The pursuit of music success continued, “this was March 1969. . . the phone rang. It was my brother, calling me from Jacksonville, telling me to come back to Florida.” This was the beginning of the story of the Allman Brothers Band–Duane had organized the six members and Gregg was soon to meet Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe.

I have written of this period in the Allman brothers lives to highlight their love of music and each other; this book is about brotherhood and not about success in the music business. Becoming a songwriter and mastering an instrument are the points of emphasis here; Allman says he was never in it for the money, but for love of the music, blues music.  “The only thing I think about is where we are going to play next. Two hundred people or twenty thousand people, I just want to play (298).” Nevertheless, this book reveals the hazards of the business–the band breakups, the lingering addictions, and failed marriages are his regrets.  “I have had me a blast . . . but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it (378, last page).” Throughout the personal setbacks, Gregg Allman, with the help of his brother’s inspiration and early guidance, retained his music principles and was able to achieve a great deal of artistic success.

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Songwriter Explores Inner Space

Fagen, Donald. Eminent Hipsters. Penguin Group: New York. 159 pages. 2013.

Donald Fagen bookThis book is not about the jazz/rock band Steely Dan. The author Donald Fagen is co-founder and tours with this legendary group, but in this tale he is on the road with the Dukes of September and writing a daily journal about his experiences. The journal is a long concluding chapter to this book.

The first eighty-five pages consist of ten essays describing hipsters Fagen encountered through 1969, the year of his graduation from Bard College. The essays are followed by the lengthy journal that painfully chronicles a two-month tour conducted in 2012 with a large band headlined by Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs. This journal is not about band mates or music but the suffering Fagen. While McDonald and Scaggs live and sleep in their respective touring buses, Fagen exits his bus, checks into a hotel, and acquires meals by calling room service and retiring with pay-per-view movies or jazz playing on his laptop; the hotel swimming pools are sought for exercise, but the water is brackish. As for stage performance, he disparages his audiences frequently; for example:  “. . . those people in the audience who can’t experience the performance unless they’re sending instant videos to their friends: ‘Look at me, I must be alive, I can prove it, I’m filming this shit.’” Omitting from your read this lengthy concluding chapter and journal will enable avoidance of the gloomy and grouchy side of Fagen, but you will miss out on a few laughs and insights into cultural blemishes you may actually agree with.

Fagen frequently uses the term TV Babies to “mean people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls.” These individuals populate his performance audiences and may be clamoring for a Steely Dan hit when Fagen wants to give them something more relevant to the moment. When playing to a San Antonio audience, the TV Babies, believed to be right wing tourists from Arizona, disdainfully sat through soulful Ray Charles covers from the sixties, a condition Fagen attempts to trace to having an abnormally large amygdala, a primitive part of the brain. “That’s why, when you hear a Republican speak, it’s like listening to somebody recount a particularly boring dream (122).” Also to be found in the book is a funny description of hotel desk and room service clerks with perkiness using the term “absolutely” repeatedly. He attributes this annoying behavior to some corporate employee training program.

The ten essays range from three to sixteen pages in length. The essay subject matter dates from the 1950s and 1960s, but it is unclear when they were written. From the copyright page: “Parts of this book appeared in different form in Harper’s Bazaar, Jazz Times, Premiere, and Slate.” The essays strive to elevate impressionable characters in Fagen’s music past to hipster status; the individuals include Connie Boswell, Henry Mancini, Ray Charles, and Ike Turner. Other essays are devoted to radio/TV personality Jean Shepherd, disc jockey Mort Fega, and filmscore writer Ennio Morricone. Fagen also writes of having read much science fiction in his youth and visiting as a teen the jazz clubs of New York City; he also produces a relatively long piece on his four-year English degree earning years at Bard College. With this college-days chapter the essays end, and we have completed an interesting set of chronicled life experiences through 1969. The 1970s Steely Dan years through 2010 are only sparsely addressed in this volume; for its brevity, this is Fagen memoir, not autobiography. The writing shows flashes of literary brilliance, however, as he employs interesting metaphor to further fortify points near the end of discussions.

Fagen demonstrates his music writing prowess in a chapter devoted to the vocal and arranging work of the Boswell Sisters in the 1930s swing period: “. . . they imitated jazz instrumental effects with their voices, devised tricky phrasing, switched from straight time to swing time, employed ‘speed singing’ and even raced through whole choruses in ‘Boswellese,’ a childhood language of their own invention (9).” These sisters, Connie, Vet, and Martha, who preceded and inspired the more commercially-succesful Andrews Sisters, specialized in transposing popular ballads into fun-filled up-tempo bluesy numbers that captured Fagen’s attention and was a topic for one of the more revealing and uplifting chapters of this book.

Fagen elevates hipster Ray Charles to an equally high level. “Ray brought soul out of the closet. . . Elvis borrowed from Ray. . . Horace Silver, Count Basie, and Charles Mingus owed Ray Charles.” Comparing Ray to the funk musicians of the 1970s there is no holding back: “James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and Barry White seemed less interested in pleasing a woman than in collecting body parts. In contrast, Ray’s sage interpretation of ‘America the Beautiful’ in 1972 was once a taunt, a healing gesture and a blind man’s dream of the Promised Land. . . Ray’s work, even in decline, was always wiser and subtler than that of the new breed. It was music for adults (65).”

A more difficult task of creating legacy lies with the person of Ike Turner. The story buildup begins with describing Ike’s broad and varied experience in the music industry and the premise that his composition “Rocket 88”, an R&B chart topper, may have contributed more to rock ‘n’ roll than any other single tune. Ike penned fine tunes for his wife Tina and the Ikettes, including “A Fool In Love” and “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and others. But, he was incarcerated for seventeen months for various legal offenses. When Tina came out with her book and subsequent movie, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” Ike was forced to bear the label “wife-beater” along with the “ex-felon” and “heavy drug user” tags. Nevertheless, Ike persevered with his music and won an album Grammy as recently as 2006. This engaging story earned for Ike Turner the Fagen designation “eminent hipster.”

Fagen admits to suffering from many ailments. There are frequent references to panic attacks and an anxiety disorder. The book “Appendix” is actually a categorization of a disorder he coins Acute Tour Disorder (ATD)–why not “Fagen’s Disease?” ATD is a set of psychological and physical responses to stressful experiences, poor sleeping patterns, and bad diet during a multi-month performance tour. If the ATD is allowed to continue post-tour unmanaged or untreated, it will result in Post Tour Disorder. PTD is a post-traumatic stress disorder conceived by “Dr” Fagen for categorizing behavior of some aging touring rock musicians. With discussion limited to the Appendix, one can omit this theory without a difficult conscience; also, the individual essays and journal content in this book are independent of one another and may be read and enjoyed separately.

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Nightingales, Warblers, and Other Songbirds

Black Pearls bookHarrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press. 1988.

The decade of the 1920’s is known as the classic blues period of jazz history. Much has been written of the groundbreaking music of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in that period, but it was also a time in which female black blues singers gained notoriety. The most often cited are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith; the lesser-known include Ida Cox, Sippie Smith, Edith Wilson and others. These singers left the tent show touring circuit and vaudeville performance stage to make breakthroughs in the white-owned phonograph record industry. Record sales soared; but, the roaring times ended with economic depression and the dissolution of many record companies.

The commerce of black performing/recording artists was known as the “race market” and the product “race records”—a time of awkward attempts at promoting and selling activities and results with references to skin color. New releases were promoted by record companies with full page newspaper advertisements introducing “race record” music and artist—illustrations are provided in this book. In the clubs, these women worked the classy Harlem Clubs that catered to the moneyed white audiences. The revues they starred in on Broadway were usually all black performer presentations—these women could act or dance or offer comedy in addition to vocalize the blues. The advent of radio programming in 1925 had a mixed effect, but clearly introduced this music to a new and large audience. The blues queens had available outlets to please any category of audience—young or old, black or white, and rich or poor.

Author Harrison, an academician, describes the blues music as a reflection of life experience of women in the 1920s. Love and sex; reprisal and violence; poverty and discrimination are common themes. How was this expressed in song?

In Bessie Smith’s tune “Dying by the Hour” we hear:
It’s an old story, every time it’s a doggone man.

Ida Cox from “Georgia Hound Blues”:
Like a hound, you chase all night and you don’t come home till morn.
Pretty daddy, the undertaker has got your last (chase) on.

And, in “Pink Slip Blues,” Cox sings of terminated welfare benefits:
After four long years, Uncle Sam done put me on the shelf,
‘Cause that little pink slip means you got to go for yourself.

Harrison discusses these song lyrics in a lengthy chapter entitled “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and categorizes them as travelling blues, drinking blues, dope head blues, street walking blues, and raunchy. She provides many examples of each: Clara Smith sings of the “rambling bug” in the tune “L & N Blues”; Bessie Smith’s “Gin Mill Blues” is touted; Margaret Johnson finds solace in the bottle with “Dead Drunk Blues”; Chippie Hill copies Ma Rainey’s lament on the oldest profession in “Hustlin Blues.” These lyrics were often penned by men, but the vocalist’s manner of expression, inflections, and body language enabled the female listener to identify with the reality in their own lives. The raw lyrics that flowed freely in the tent shows were cleaned up in the recording studio; but, in the clubs the boldness was delivered to appreciative audiences.

Not to be forgotten here though is the singer’s expression of independence that comes through in most recordings. Harrison properly concludes this chapter of the book with reference to the most desirable characteristic in my view—self-reliance. From “Trouble in Mind Blues” sung by Chippie Hill,

I’m alone every night and the lights are sinking low,
I’ve never had so much trouble in my life before.
My good man, he done quit me and there’s talking all over town,
And, I know my baby, you can’t keep a good woman down.

Blues women had to contend with the interference of church institutions and other self-righteous units seeking to derail their voice from stage and airwaves. The demise of live performances in the 1930’s depression era, however, found many returning to the church with their raunchy song vocals a thing of the past and their morals no longer subject to scrutiny; a few became music leaders and sang freely in church as they had done in their youth.

Disagreements with recording companies, who claimed exclusive rights to the singers, were common. Musicians defeated this by recording with other companies under pseudonyms. For example, Ida Cox, who recorded seventy-eight sides for Paramount during the decade, also recorded for Harmograph and Silvertone under a variety of fictitious names. Alberta Hunter recorded 100-plus sides for seven different companies under contract, and went underground to record for Harmograph, Silvertone, Gennet, Buddy, and Puritan labels using the names May Alix, Helen Roberts, Josephine Beatty, or Alberta Prime. Difficult to assign blame here; so, in general one raises a brow toward all participants in the industry—greedy companies and slippery performers. Where do your sentiments lie?

Harrison interviewed four blues women who survived into the 1980s, and for enlightening detail focuses on their lives with full chapters honoring each–Sippie Wallace born in 1898 in Houston; Victoria “Vickie” Spivey born 1906 in Houston; Edith Wilson born 1896 in Louisville; and Alberta Hunter born 1895 in Memphis. Here is a sampling:

“(Edith) Wilson was a singer who sang rather than emoted (no moans or wails); she enjoyed what her voice could do and did it. A blues song was a song, not her life story. . . although the lack of gripping emotional intensity led most critics to discount her as a blues singer, Wilson’s singing satisfied the type of audiences for whom she sang—whites who frequented “sophisticated” Harlem cabarets run by the underworld mobsters (166).”

Writing of Alberta Hunter, “She communicated with the audience intimately on one level but warned it to keep its distance because ‘I don’t take no mess’; yet this was usually coupled with a wry sense of humor. . . She could belt out the blues with the best of the sisters and she could sing a ballad that pleased the nightclub and theater crowds (208).” Hunter was singing and composing songs into her eighties, and performed in New York’s Greenwich Village at a club she sang in fifty years earlier.

The publisher categorizes this book as “Women’s Studies/Music/Black Studies (back cover, top).” Used copies of this book, originally published in 1988, may be acquired in trade paper format for approximately one dollar (plus shipping and handling) online—this edition is distinguished by the bright pink cover. Included in the book are 29 illustrations–blues singer photographs, newspaper ads announcing new releases, record jackets, sheet music covers, and song sheets. The author provides more than four hundred evidentiary footnotes including the oft-cited periodical sources Chicago Defender, The Afro-American, and Melody Maker.

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From Lettsworth to the Checkerboard

Guy, Buddy, with David Ritz. When I Left Home: My Story. Da Capo Press. 2012

Buddy Guy and Junior WellsThis book is more about people in Buddy’s life than the music they created. He acknowledges the roles and support of these influences. So many of the blues greats from the South started at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and received little education—they scratched together a life while pursuing their music passion and migrated North at a young age with nothing but hope. There are many humorous passages in this book; however, there are also a few gruesome ones. The book is a thorough memoir, but discussed here are the challenges of Buddy the young musician.

Buddy Guy (BG) may rank as the greatest Chicago blues man who has not been knifed, shot, nor injured seriously in an auto accident. He has never been jailed, and has been in jails only to bail out his music partner, Junior Wells. For all the tales of guns and knives and early deaths, it is remarkable for any Chicago bluesman in his 70’s to be alive. His closest death encounter may have been when he awoke to his wife hovering over him with a letter opener. A divorce followed shortly thereafter, and Buddy plays on. Buddy’s life story begins in Louisiana.

There was no electricity in the first Buddy Guy sharecropping family house in Lettsworth, Louisiana, way out in the country. The first music he heard was from a family friend who visited at Christmas, Coot (aka Henry Smith). Coot would play John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” on his two-string guitar in exchange for drinks. There were no screens on the windows, and big “skeeters.” When the family finally got window screens, Buddy pulled out two strings and made a guitar; when he got caught and had to return the strings, he attached a rubber band to two nails on the wall to see what sound he could produce. A short time later, Buddy was in the general store when Lightnin’ Slim walked in with his guitar and amp; he got the proprietor to coax Slim into playing for 30-minutes in exchange for a few beers. And with that Buddy was hooked on electric guitar for life.

There is no technical language describing music in this memoir. Like many folk blues musicians, Guy cannot read music. There was no written music in his world to learn from. Formal education was limited to periodic sessions at a church school and some high school. His first guitar or makeshift instrument had fewer than six strings. He worked the fields of cotton and corn for his family in Lettsworth. When a teenager, Buddy moved to Baton Rouge to live with his sister’s family; he worked in a full-service gas station and on the campus of LSU doing maintenance work. At age 22 he rode the train to Chicago in search of a better paying job–it was 1957.

In the beginning, at the 708 Club, Guy got initiated to the blues stage when he was thrust into a challenge on the stage with the Otis Rush band. The musicians were sitting down while playing—Buddy feared he may need to read music, but the music stands were only for show. Rush just “had to let me go. I believe he had to let me go. I believe no force on earth could have kept me from letting go. See, the spirit of Guitar Slim entered my soul—not just the spirit, but the showmanship. I wouldn’t sit down, I couldn’t sit down, and after I played the opening notes I watch myself move to the edge of the stage and jump into the crowd, just as I’d seen Slim do (76).”

In those early days, Guy established his club performance demeanor described as wild and crazy. Describing a cutting contest with the prize a pint of whisky on the barroom table, and feeling fear he was overmatched against Earl Hooker: “Hooker would hand me my ass on a platter—I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. But on a night when there was three feet of snow, I hooked up my 150-foot Guitar Slim-styled cord and started playing from inside a car parked outside the bar . . . when I finally did step through the door (of the club), the yelling was so loud that the owner handed me the pint.” BG never began his set on the bandstand; instead he marched out from within the men’s room, or the women’s bathroom, ever trying to please the tough bar crowd. And he turned the amp volume up loud to be heard. To Buddy, Chicago blues was “nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity (84).”

Buddy developed his reputation in Chicago by playing for years in the blues clubs and as a sideman in the studio of Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. His first club dates were at the 708 on the South Side and the Squeeze Club, also called the Bucket of Blood, on the West Side. These were very tough places, and Guy is not shy about discussing the presence of weapons: “I was playing my guitar when one cat drove an ice pick deep into another cat’s neck. That way you bleed on the inside and there ain’t no mess. When the cat fell to the ground, they dragged him outside and dumped him on the corner. Seeing all this, I got sick to my stomach. . . When the cops saw the dead man, they couldn’t have cared less. To them it meant only one more dead nigger (p. 86).” Not only was the scene occasionally violent, but the pay from the club owners was occasional for assuming the risk. Guy also says he got little money from Leonard Chess for the recording sessions. But, Chicago’s Chess Records was where it was at, having recorded the likes of Muddy Waters, Little Water, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Jimmy Rogers. Buddy’s music life strategy was to play wild and loud in the bars and keep his mouth shut in the recording studio—it has seemed to pay off.

So, what was the bar crowd like? In the fifties the steel mills and slaughterhouses were running shifts for 24-hours. “They wanted to forget the pain of trucking steel and killing cows. They wanted to get happy in a hurry. They wanted music that would blast ‘em into outer space, sounds that would carry them out of this mean ol’ world into another world of good feeling (77).” You can read about the action at places like the 708, Theresa’s, Curly’s and the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago; and the F & J Lounge in Gary, Ind. And, then there’s that place called the Squeeze Club on the West Side, where a man walked in with his woman’s head in a paper bag.

In the 1960s work became more scarce for blues musicians—Elvis was delivering blues to white audiences in the 50’s and rock ‘n’ roll followed. Chicago blacks left the blues bars for the Regal Theatre to see the Isley Brothers. Motown and R & B were hot. And then, the British invasion took over. The blues never totally went away, however. The popularity of white blues musicians like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton lead their fans to dig a little deeper for the source of their sound; with that, the blues resurgence was born. Playing to white audiences in the 60’s, Buddy partnered with mouth harp player Junior Wells to become successful recording artists just as Muddy Waters and Little Walter in this guitar and harmonicist front man duo style had done.

The men who influenced Guy in his music career are discussed at length here—one or more chapters dedicated to each—and are fondly referred to as “daddys.” Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, and Junior Wells are modern contemporaries. Buddy remembers his early inspiration sources; upon receiving a Grammy, or some other award, BG will thank the musicians who paved the way and received little or no fame or money—Guitar Slim, Lightnin’ Slim, and Lightnin’ Hopkins are his influences. BG expresses the most love for Muddy Waters, who helped Guy develop professionally in Chicago, and B. B. King, who has been the most dependable source of friendship. Guy dedicates his book to “the memory of Muddy Waters, father to us all.”

My review of the KUVO 89.3 FM playlist in recent months indicates that you will most likely hear the music of Buddy Guy on two programs: The All Blues show with Sammy Mayfield hosting on Saturday afternoon, and Rockin n’ Rhythm with JC on Friday evenings. Thanks to these volunteer on-air hosts for helping keep the blues alive!

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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part II

The following post continues a review of the book, What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz, by Jonny King. The boldface paragraph introductions correspond with actual book chapter titles.

Jonny King

Jonny King

The Set List. The Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter gave us popular tunes in the 30’s and 40’s that became jazz standards simply because they were great tunes. Later, creative musicians transformed the melodies, chord structures, and progressions to effect an emotion they wished to convey. With each recording the artist was breathing new life into an old and recognized melody, believing they were creating something new and they were. The standard sounded fresh and different and thus was worthy of recording again and again; as many as fifty different versions. King writes of Keith Jarrett’s multiple recordings of the same tune at different times by the same band personnel, yet managing to sound different and fresh each time.

Young musicians including Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman are again finding ways to recreate the romantic music of the 30’s and 40’s that was first transformed by their bop heroes of the 50’s and 60’s; in this way they are accepting the challenge to breathe new life into a standard. King gives another reason for why the standards do not die—the pop tunes apparently have chord progressions that can be largely preserved while the jazz leader blankets this structure with personal melodic interpretation—the result swings. Add to the many jazz standards the creative compositions of Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins and others and you have the collection of music known as jazz.

Ballads. The ballad song-form may have the connotation of being slow and romantic, but “. . . all the chops in the world won’t rescue you from harsh scrutiny if you don’t have the maturity and confidence to play lyrically as the moment requires. . . The tenor player’s tone, the trumpeter’s vibrato, and the pianist’s chord voicings and touch are all ruthlessly laid bare to a now-silent audience (120).” The slow-tempo puts pressure and spotlight on the patient technique of the musician. King gives us an interesting discussion of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk performing as balladeers. Describing their respective tenor and pianist roles in the recording of the Monk composition, “Reflections” in 1957, “Monk’s solo, spurred by (drummer Art) Blakey’s double-time beat, is basically a reinterpretation of the simple melody of ‘Reflections’. He twists and turns the essential notes and phrasing, but constantly refers back to the head that Newk (Rollins) played. Part of the spirit of his solo is an almost deliberate looseness and sloppiness, a willingness to clang his way around the tune’s form. . . Monk playfully bangs out the melody of ‘Reflections’ and punctuates it with raining runs and shattering chord clusters.” Describing Rollins’ solo, “. . . more than Monk, he alternates references to the song’s melody with explosive bursts that span the full range of the horn. Like the song’s composer, Newk approaches the piece with a split personality, alternating between the tender and the eruptive.”

In their performance on this piece, these two bop stalwarts are playing with an equal level of intensity and staying true to their individual personalities–“recognize the consistent voices these two masters bring to everything they write and play (129).” This is interesting descriptive narrative of a classic piece of music, but would it not be a valuable addition to have the recording on your stereo player? Not having that privilege, my response was to read deliberately and multiple times. Maybe you do not have time for that; if so, this book can serve as a valuable reference to be read periodically. The book is quite readable and the chapters are brief and stand alone.

The Blues. Being able to play the “blues” requires not only the transmission of a feeling known to us all, but playing “a particular form of song and set of chord changes (108).” This song structure was employed by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others from jazz origins through the bebop era. King provides a sheet music illustration (109) of blues chord changes over a twelve-bar music form in the key of G that begins with the F7 chord and jumps up to the Bb7 chord and on to other chords, adding that there are infinite variations on this progression. Returning to that blues feeling, “Even as it denotes a particular musical structure, the ‘blues’ also evokes a certain spiritual and soulful way of playing (109).” King cites the tune “Moanin” by Bobby Timmons and also Jimmy Smith’s funky album Back at the Chicken Shack as classics capturing this style of play.

South, East, and West of the Border. Recognizing the role of international music in the development of jazz, King analyzes the work of McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, and Herbie Hancock. Tyner’s playing is described as “volcanic.” Analyzing McCoy’s “African Village,” King states “Herbie Lewis begins with ‘double stops’ on the bass, two notes played simultaneously like a chord.” Following this song section, “. . . other band members, either McCoy or Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphonist) or both, add a small shakerlike percussion instrument and cowbells as (Freddie) Waits’ insistent drumbeat grows more intense. The focus here is on rhythm.” McCoy and Hutcherson then return to the melody of “African Village”–McCoy employs a “pentatonic scale,” giving the melody an African sound in the A section (the song form is AABA); the bridge is then played using a dimished scale creating a sense of tension before returning to the A section restoring a sense of calm to the piece. In describing Hutcherson’s solo, “On the E-minor vamp of ‘African Village,’ he plays simple melodies, blindingly fast runs, and shimmering trills. He also departs frequently from the basic E-minor sound to set up dissonances and tensions, in a sense improvising new harmonies over the simple E-minor sound.” King aids the reader by explaining the meaning of terms AABA form, vamp, dissonance, and modal playing–necessary understandings to get through this extended parsing of a tune’s elements. Apply your new knowledge to the study of the following tunes in this chapter: Morgan’s “Ca-Lee-So” from Delightfulee recorded in 1966, and Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” from Maiden Voyage (1965).

Out. For those players wishing to dispense with obeying written chord structures and time signatures, read how to go your own nonconventional way in this chapter. Sometimes referred to as “free jazz,” this music is part of the avant garde movement in the arts. Not necessarily inaccessible, King points to the work of Miles Davis in the 1960’s and projects lead by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock as sufficiently complex to fit this category. Few would object to describing the journeys of Ornette Coleman as “out.” In this book, King analyzes the Ornette tune “Round Trip” from the 1969 album New York Is Now. There is no pianist in the studio on this date–a common Coleman election. King states, “If you’re not going to play chord changes, why have a pianist’s chord voicing intrude (152).” After Coleman and (Dewey) Redman establish the melody, Elvin (Jones) and Jimmy (Garrison) start walking and swinging in a traditional spang-a-lang . . . (playing) together in a ‘loosely expressive’ manner. Moving from the rhythm section to a description of the tune’s solos, King describes the playing of alto saxophonist Coleman and tenor Redman as a dialog–“call and response, question and answer, squeak up high and rasp down low.” King goes from discussing the orderly, but free styling of the soloists, back to the light and loose playing of Jones and Garrison, “what they do well is to capture the unconfined swell of the piece without ever losing sight of the beat that makes even this freedom swing hard (154).”

King finishes this chapter on non-conventional music by comparing the work of jazz free-formers with the writing of James Joyce in Ulysees and the evolution of painting history. Just as Joyce cast aside the use of common language grammar, the musicians have sought to bend and rewrite jazz language forms to suit their creative mood state; and, in both canvas art and jazz, King notes the shifts from “exact replication to suggestion to total abstraction.” This transformation in jazz over time is driven by the players’ radical stance that helps advance an art form to a new developmental stage.

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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part I

What Jazz Is bookKing, Jonny. What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide To Understanding and Listening To Jazz. Walker and Company. New York. 1997. 162 pages.

King, a highly experienced jazz pianist, qualifies as an insider; he also writes well. He begins with the premise that jazz is not well understood by non-musicians. The book serves as a primer for beginning and intermediate level jazz fans wanting to advance their technical understanding of an exciting art form. I will present this review in a series. A subsequent part(s) will review the author’s narrative on playlist selection, the jazz standard, the playing of a ballad, the blues, and “out” music. Here, in this first part, I will describe the early content of the book: the language of jazz and the concepts fundamental to its essence; and, the roles that the musicians in the band perform in improvising individually and as a group. My objective is to motivate you to read the book. The bold headings are actual book chapter titles.

Where’s the melody? With jazz music, if the ensemble is playing a standard that the listener knows, the melodic lines that you could sing happily may be lost to the musicians’ improvisation. The recognizable tune may only be sensed in the opening and closing choruses. In group play or during solos, the musician will depart or with pleasure run away from the melody to insert phrases of his choosing, not wishing to conform to standard. With this free expression, the musician is determined to place his personal stamp on a piece and make it his own. The original tune as written belongs to another era, another attitude, and may need reformulation for what is hip today. This attitude of transformation may be attributed to the vast styles of music available for selection, such as classical and African rhythms; and, a significant dose of defiance and personality quirks possessed by the players growing out of the African-American cultural experience have shaped the jazz idiom.

The language of jazz. Author King describes a song as containing melody, harmony, and rhythm. A lead sheet (illustrated by King) prepared for jazz play will contain the chord changes (progression) and the time spacing for the playing of a chord (harmony). Also written on the lead sheet are the notes to be played in succession and the speed and timing of note play (melody). There is clearly a form to the song as set by the composer or arranger. The musician may play the tune strictly as written, but more than likely will improvise with unwritten pauses or a strange note that yet blends into the melody. A four-note or three-note chord may be played with a change in a note or two of that chord to tamper with the mood conveyed. The musician is making a point and the tune remains logical and coherent as the unit knows where they are going, but the route taken differs. The musician is substituting known jazz phrases, or “licks,” for the written ones. This may be called improvisation.

Spang-A-Lang: A Feel and a Groove. Jazz swings. Snapping your fingers, or bobbing your head? If it swings, it’s jazz! Swing is as unique to jazz as is improvisation. King describes the different styles of various drummers—how each swings or drives the other musicians to provide the groove. Individuals include Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. They all had a “relaxed intensity” in their playing.

The Rhythm Section. The work of the drummer is integral to the forward motion of the group and the rhythmic feel conveyed. King introduces the drum set and the associated sounds: the hi-hat, snare drum, bass drum, tom tom, and the ride cymbal and crash cymbal; chit chit, chhh, thwack, dum, da-da-dum, and ssshhhhh. King places the drummer’s level of importance to the jazz ensemble over its role in the classical or rock groups. Jazz drummers have unique characteristics, ways of expressing themselves. Drummers do not play chords nor do they construct melody; they “comp” (accompany) for the soloist and push the tempo much like a point guard in basketball. King refers often to the work of drummer Art Blakey and the ever-changing groups he headed for many years. For contrast, the style preferences of Elvin Jones are addressed.

The other elements of the rhythm section are discussed—the acoustic bass and the piano. “Beyond rhythm, which is the collective responsibility of all members of the rhythm section, the pianist and bassist (and/or guitarist) must establish the harmonic content of the tune (30).” This means managing chord changes that the soloists can play over. The bassist and drummer establish the rhythm and lock into the tempo early on—the groove of the song. This book has interesting sections elaborating upon these rhythm player responsibilities, as well as the work of the more visible front line players.

The Front Line (And Others In Between). King then moves to discussing in turn the roles of the saxophone as “jazz’s signature instrument,” the “egomaniacal” trumpet player, other woodwinds, guitar, vibes, organ, and the vocalists. Throughout this discussion, King cites the legendary players and their expressive styles of playing. Having read this far, you will be ready to show off your newfound knowledge of jazz by dropping the names of the greats, the legends—Ellington, Armstrong, Hawkins, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Powell, Basie, FitzGerald, Holiday, etc. You need to have the supply of nicknames to toss about as Jonny King does liberally—Duke, Hawk, Bird, Diz, Newk, Prez, Bu, Trane, PC, Lady Day, and Bags; give your friends the illusion you are on a first-name basis with giants—everyone does it!

Stay tuned for Part II of this review to come in a couple of weeks.

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