Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood  “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo.  Countless other major artists, such as Miles DavisAretha FranklinB.B. King  and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate  The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo  Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo  is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s  annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville  (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by The Impressions

All my bags are packed/I’m ready to go/I’m standin’ here outside your door/I hate to wake you up to say goodbye…In case these words sound familiar, they are the opening lines of Leaving On a Jet Plane. While I’ve always loved this 1966 song by John Denver, it’s not my desert island pick for this week, but the lyrics fit well thematically.

Doing this feature alphabetically based on my song library, I’m up to the letter “I”. It turned out there weren’t too many choices: The Isley Brothers; two German acts, Ina Deter Band and Ich + Ich and, nope it’s not an illusion, Imagination. And, of course, the music act I picked: The Impressions. When it comes to this great doo-wop, gospel, soul and R&B group one song has always stood out to me in particular: People Get Ready.

Written by Curtis Mayfield, one of my all-time favorite artists, People Get Ready is the title track of The Impressions’ fourth studio album released in February 1965, the group’s first and only record to top Billboard’s R&B Chart. It also became their biggest success on the mainstream Billboard 200, climbing to no. 23. The beautiful tune also appeared as a single, reaching no. 3 and no. 14 on the U.S. R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts, respectively.

The gospel-influenced, which reflected a growing sense of social and political awareness in his writing, rightfully has received much recognition. Rolling Stone named it the 24th greatest song of all time in its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The magazine also ranked it at no. 20 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. Mojo named it as one of Top 10 Best Songs of All Time. Additionally, People Get Ready is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”

Not surprisingly, the tune has been covered by a broad range of other artists. Some include Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, Greg Lake and Jeff Beck who teamed up with Rod Stewart. Following is a Spotify playlist featuring some of the song’s renditions.

Here are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:

The song embodies a deep sense of spirituality and community, but with enough popular appeal to make it a hit. Mayfield based the song’s lyric on various sermons he heard in church. He wrote the music first, and the gospel feel dictated the words.

This song resonated with African Americans during the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. The song speaks for the downtrodden, and Mayfield made it clear that transcended race. “It doesn’t matter what color or faith you have,” he told Goldmine in 1997. “I’m pleased the lyrics can be of value to anybody.”…

After Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed in 1990 (a light rig fell on him, crushing three vertebrae), royalties from this song – especially the Rod Stewart version – helped keep him financially sound, which he credited for helping him fend off depression and remain active as a songwriter and singer despite his condition. Mayfield released the acclaimed album New World Order two years before his death in 1999...

…Train imagery was popular in traditional spirituals, with songs like “The Gospel Train,” “I Got My Ticket,” and “I’m Gwine Home on de Mornin’ Train” looking forward to a joyous passage to the afterlife aboard the heavenly locomotive. In the decades leading up to the US Civil War, “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe routes and shelters that helped slaves escape to free states, used these songs as codes to alert slaves throughout their journey.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

And Just Like That Bonnie Raitt Releases Her Best Album to Date

Since finding out the other day that Bonnie Raitt was going to come out with a new album I had been full of anticipation. The wait was finally over last Friday (April 22). Not only is Just Like That… Raitt’s 21st album and her first new release in more than six years, but I increasingly feel it’s her best work to date in a 51-year recording career!

As people who follow this blog or are aware of my music taste otherwise know, Raitt is one of my long-time favorite artists. Since my former German bandmate and music buddy introduced me to Nick of Time in 1989, I’ve listened to this amazing lady. From the get-go, I loved her smooth slide guitar playing (btw, I read she’s completely self-taught!), as well her voice and songs. My appreciation increased even further after seeing Raitt at NJPAC in Newark, N.J. in August 2016. She’s just a phenomenal music artist!

According to Raitt’s website, work on Just Like That… began last summer when it appeared things with this tiresome pandemic were headed in a better direction, and she brought her band to Northern California: Duke Levine (guitar, vocals), George Marinelli (guitar, vocals), Glenn Patscha (keyboard, vocals), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass) and Ricky Fataar (drums). “I’ve always wanted to make a record here [closer to her home – CMM], and once vaccinations made traveling safe again, we were thrilled to get everyone back together,” she explained. “I think the absolute joy and relief of reuniting to play live music is really palpable on this record.”

“On this record, I wanted to stretch,” Raitt further pointed out. “I always want to find songs that excite me, and what’s different this time is that I’ve tried some styles and topics I haven’t touched on before.” Raitt has always had a gift to pick and interpret great songs written by other artists, such as John Hiatt, Gary Nicholson, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John Prine. Apart from continuing that tradition, Just Like That… also features four tunes written by Raitt – more than the usual two to three original songs on previous albums. Time for some music!

Here’s the great opener Made Up Mind, a song by Canadian roots-rock band The Bros. Landreth from their 2013 album Let It Lie. The song was co-written by David Landreth, Jonathan Singleton and Joseph Landreth. Raitt’s rendition was first released on February 22 as the first of three upfront singles. “Made Up Mind I fell in love with in 2014 from The Bros. Landreth who opened a show for us in Canada,” Raitt told Zane Lowe during a 1-hour interview for Apple Music. Can’t blame her. Here’s the excellent original in case you’re curious!

Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart is a tune by American guitarist and songwriter Al Anderson, who according to his AllMusic bio “is best known for his 22-year stint with roots-rock renegades NRBQ” [between 1971 and 1993 – CMM]. “Al Anderson I’ve been friends with, with one of my favorite bands, NRBQ,” Raitt told Zane. “He was the lead singer and guitar player for them, one of the lead singers. And I’ve had that song for 30 years.” Like Made Up Mind, the track first appeared as an upfront single, on March 25. Love this tune!

Since I included Livin’ For the Ones, another highlight of the album, in my last Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping it here and go right to the title song. Written by Raitt, it’s a deeply touching story song inspired by a news story she had watched on TV. “They followed this woman who was going to the house of the man who received her son’s heart she donated when he passed away, for the first time,” Raitt told Zane. “…And he invited her to sit on the couch…And then he said, ‘would you like to put your head on my chest and listen to your son’s heart?’ [Raitt’s voice breaks] It laid me out. It just laid me out.” Just picturing the scene Raitt described makes you cry!

Things turn funky on Waitin’ For You to Blow, another original. According to a statement on Raitt’s website, the song is inspired by Mose Allison, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, and ‘70s funk. “There’s something thrilling about creating something brand new out of feelings and styles that have always run so deep in me,” Raitt stated. Check out the cool groove of that tune!

The last track I’d like to call out is Love So Strong, a song by Jamaican ska and rock steady group Toots and the Maytals from their 2007 album Light Your Light. The above statement notes Raitt had planned to do that tune as her third duet with the band’s frontman Toots Hibbert, but her dear friend passed away in 2020. Raitt ended up recording the groovy song as a tribute to Hibbert, who is regarded as a reggae pioneer like Bob Marley.

Bonnie Raitt produced Just Like That…. Like her two previous albums, Dig In Deep (2016) and Slipstream (2012), Just Like That… appears on Redwing Records. The album was recorded and mixed by Ryan Freeland who had served as engineer and mixer on the Grammy-winning Slipstream. Freeland has also worked with Ray LaMontagne, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III and Alana Davis, among others.

Here’s a Spotify link to the album:

The final word shall belong to Raitt who as stated on her website has never felt more grateful that she can continue making music, contributing to causes, keeping her crew working, and connecting with her audience. “I’m really aware of how lucky I am and I feel like my responsibility is to get out there and say something fresh and new—for me and for the fans,” she says. “It’s really daunting not to repeat yourself, but I have to have something to say, or I wouldn’t put out a record.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Bonnie Raitt website; Apple Music; AllMusic; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

The Hump Day Picker-Upper

Cheering you up for a dreadful Wednesday, one song at a time

For those of us taking care of business during the regular workweek, I guess it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that dreadful Wednesday blues. Sometimes, that middle point of the workweek can be a true drag. But help is on the way!

My proposition for today: Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and the Wailers. In addition to listening to the song, I recommend watching the official music video. It will boost the efficacy of the treatment!

Written by Marley, the song first appeared on Exodus, the ninth studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers released in June 1977. It also appeared separately as a single in September 1980. Not sure about the three-year delay for one of the Jamaican reggae artist’s most popular songs.

According to Songfacts, the uplifting tune was inspired by birds that frequented Marley’s porch stoop in Kingston, Jamaica: “That really happened,” he told Sounds magazine. “That’s where I get my inspiration.”

An alternate version is the song was about Marley’s vocal backing trio, The I Threes: Group member Marcia Griffiths explained: “After the song was written, Bob would always refer to us as the Three Little Birds. After a show, there would be an encore, sometimes people even wanted us to go back onstage four times. Bob would still want to go back and he would say, ‘What is my Three Little Birds saying?'”

In any case, don’t worry about a thing, ’cause ev’ry little thing’s gonna be alright! Happy Hump Day, and always remember the words of the wise George Harrison: All things must pass!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another Saturday is upon us, which means it’s time to take a fresh look at newly released music. My picks for this week include melodic punk, pop country, indie rock and some contemporary reggae. All tunes appear on releases that came out yesterday (August 6).

Fake Names/It Will Take a Lifetime

Fake Names are a supergroup featuring members from Swedish and American punk bands I’m not familiar with. According to this review in Broadway World, the line-up includes guitarists Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion) and Michael Hampton (S.O.A., Embrace, One Last Wish), lead vocalist Dennis Lyxzén (Refused, International Noise Conspiracy, INVSN) and bassist Johnny Temple (Girls Against Boys, Soulside). In May 2020, Fake Names released their eponymous debut album. It Will Take a Lifetime is the opener of their new self-titled EP. The tune is credited to all four members. The recording also includes guest drummer Brendan Canty (Rites of Spring, Fugazi). I rarely listen to punk but find this pretty accessible. Obviously, it’s not hardcore, which isn’t my cup of tea, plus it’s pretty melodic!

Allison Ponthier/Cowboy

Allison Ponthier is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, New York, who originally hails from the Dallas area. This feature in Atwood Magazine describes her music as “equal parts Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Phoebe Bridgers.” Cowboy is from Ponthier’s debut EP Faking My Own Death. The tune first appeared in March as her debut single. “”Cowboy” is the story of when I moved from my hometown in Texas to Brooklyn and ended up coming out as a queer person,” Ponthier explained to Atwood Magazine. “I was always trying to run away from different aspects of myself, and I guess it was time to live my truth as a gay cowboy.” According to the publication, “Ponthier is quickly asserting herself as one of 2021’s freshest and most exciting new singer/ songwriters.” While I know way too little about her music to comment on the statement, I find Cowboy pretty intriguing.

Laura Stevenson/Continental Divide

Laura Stevenson is a folk and indie rock-oriented singer-songwriter from Long Island, New York. According to her Apple Music artist profile, Stevenson is the granddaughter of Harry Simeone, an arranger and conductor who was co-credited with writing the Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy.” Simeone’s wife, Margaret McCravy, sang for Benny Goodman’s Orchestra in the 1930s under the name Margaret McCrae. By her late teens, Stevenson was already writing her own songs and performing locally when she befriended members of band the Arrogant Sons of Bitches. They temporarily disbanded in 2004, and when lead singer Jeff Rosenstock quickly formed the ska-punk collective Bomb the Music Industry!, Stevenson was enlisted as keyboard player. She continued to play solo shows during her time with the group, with members often contributing to her backing band. Credited as Laura Stevenson & the Cans, she made her solo recording debut in 2009 on a split EP with BTMI, adding the three-track “Holy Ghost!” later the same year. Her full-length debut, A Record, followed on Asian Man Records in 2010 and included collaborations with Rosenstock. Fast-forward 11 years to Stevensons’ new and self-titled sixth album, for which she wrote all tracks. Here’s Continental Divide – check out that great warm sound – very nice!

Sizzla/On a High

When being asked about reggae music, I’m quick to say I dig it because it’s groovy and makes you want to move. The truth is I mostly base this on Bob Marley, the only reggae artist I’ve explored beyond just a song or two. Perhaps tellingly, I had not heard of Sizzla (born Miguel Orlando Collins), who according to Wikipedia is “one of the most commercially and critically successful contemporary reggae artists.” Well, if they say so. Sizzla was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1995, he met Jamaican record producer Philip “Fatis” Burrell, who produced his debut album Burning Up that appeared in September of the same year. Sizzla is a prolific recording artist who has since released more than 50 additional albums, frequently several during the same year. On a High, written by Collins, is the title track of Sizzla’s new album. Feel free to groove along!

Sources: Wikipedia; Broadway World; Atwood Magazine; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Time to take another look at newly released music. My latest picks include the new single by one of my favorite contemporary bands, from Memphis, Tenn. The remaining three artists – a singer-songwriter from Nashville, an Irish pop rock band from Dublin and an indie rock outfit from New York – are new to me. Except for the last tune, all music was released yesterday (July 9).

Southern Avenue/Move Into the Light

Move Into the Light is the second upfront single from Southern Avenue’s upcoming third album Be the Love You Want slated for August 27. This five-piece from Memphis, Tenn. is one of my favorite contemporary bands, and I’ve covered them on various previous occasions. Founded in 2015, Southern Avenue, blend blues and soul with contemporary R&B. This new song introduces more of a dance feel to the band’s sound. It was co-written by Southern Avenue’s guitarist and lead vocalist Ori Naftaly and Tierinii Jackson, respectively, together with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and producer Michael Goldwasser. The band’s other members include Jackson’s sister Tikyra Jackson (drums), Jeremy Powell (keyboards) and Evan Sarver (bass). Commenting on the new tune, Tierinii told American Songwriter, “We reworked it with the band and made it all churchy and soulful and as Memphis-y as we could…It’s kind of a wild card, because it’s more of a dance song, but it’s still got that church vibe, it still has the soul.” I agree and dig the funky sound and the horns. Check it out!

Joy Oladokun/jordan

Joy Oladokum is a singer-songwriter based in Nashville, Tenn. According to her Apple Music profile, her music fuses the deep emotions and confessional nature of classic singer/songwriters with music that encompasses contemporary folk, R&B, and pop…Raised in a small rural community in Arizona, Joy Oladokun began playing guitar when she was ten years old. Inspired by artists like Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley, and singer/songwriters of the ’70s, Oladokun started writing songs but initially had no intention of pursuing music as a career, preferring to perform for family and friends, sometimes writing them new tunes as gifts…In April 2015, she released a solo acoustic EP, Cathedrals, and later that year launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to record a full-length album. Titled Carry, it appeared in April 2016. jordan is the opener of Oladukum’s new album in defense of my own happiness (complete). “I wrote ‘jordan’ the day I decided to come out [as a queer woman],” she told Atwood Magazine. “I had spent a lot of time in self isolation dreaming of what it meant to be fully known. Letting myself imagine a life where I could be loved and happy was my first step into that journey.”

Inhaler/Totally

Inhaler are an Irish pop rock band from Dublin. Initially founded as a trio in 2012, they adopted the name Inhaler in 2015 and shortly thereafter became a four-piece. The current line-up includes co-founders Elijah Hewson (lead vocals, guitar), Robert Keating (bass, backing vocals) and Ryan McMahon (drums), together with Josh Jenkinson (guitar) who has been with the group since 2015. Hewson is one of Bono’s sons. In 2018, the band self-released their debut single I Want You. Inhaler were voted no. 5 in BBC’s “Sound of 2020” poll and were also included in the NME 100: Essential New Artists for 2020 list. Totally is a nice melodic pop rock tune from their debut album It Won’t Always Be Like This. And, while the band doesn’t sound like U2, Elijah’s vocals can’t deny his father, though since I know the connection to the U2 frontman, there may be a certain degree of bias.

Wild Pink/Leferever

Wild Pink are an indie rock band from New York. They were formed in 2015 by singer-songwriter John Ross (vocals, guitar), T.C. Brownell (bass) and Dan Keegan (drums). After self-releasing their debut single 2 Songs in 2015, Wild Pink got a deal with Texas is Funny Records (actually a funny name for a label!), which was followed by their debut EP Good Life in May of the same year. The band’s eponymous first full-length album appeared in early 2017 on Tiny Engines. They have since released two additional studio albums, most recently A Billion Little Lights in February this year. Leferever, written by Ross, is a track from their latest single 3 Songs that came out on June 25. I find the atmospheric sound quite soothing.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Apple Music; Atwood Magazine; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Can you believe it’s Sunday morning again? After having done home office for about a year now and also spent most of my other time at my house, I’ve pretty much lost sense of time. On the upside, Sunday morning also means it’s time for another Sunday Six. This new installment, which btw is the sixth of the weekly recurring feature, includes jazz-oriented instrumental music, soul, blues, funky R&B, straight rock and glam rock – in other words, a good deal of variety, and that’s the way uh huh I like it!

Mike Caputo/Space and Time

Let’s kick things off with a beautiful journey through space and time. Not only does this newly produced saxophone-driven instrumental by Mike Caputo feel timely in light of NASA’s recent landing of the Mars rover, but it also represents the kind of smooth music I like to feature to start Sunday Six installments. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, Mike’s name may ring a bell. The New Jersey singer-songwriter, who has been active for more than 50 years, is best known for his incredible renditions of Steely Dan’s music, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino VannelliStevie Wonder and Sting, who have all been major influences. Like many artists have done during the pandemic when they cannot perform, Mike went back into his archives and unearthed Space and Time, which he originally had written as part of a movie soundtrack a few years ago. BTW, that amazing saxophone part is played by Phil Armeno, a member of Good Stuff, who used to be a touring backing musician for Chuck BerryBo Diddley and The Duprees in the ’70s. Check out that smooth sax tone! Vocals? Who needs vocals? 🙂

The Impressions/People Get Ready

Before Curtis Mayfield, one of my favorite artists, launched his solo career with his amazing 1970 album Curtis, he had been with doo-wop, gospel, soul and R&B group The Impressions for 14 years. When he joined the group at the age of 14, they were still called The Roosters. People Get Ready, written by Mayfield, was the title track of the group’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1965, about seven years after they had changed their name to The Impressions. People Get Ready gave the group a no. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). On the mainstream Hot 100, the tune climbed to no. 14. Many other artists like Bob Marley, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and The Staple Singers have covered it. Perhaps the best known rendition is by Jeff Beck, featuring Rod Stewart on Beck’s 1985 studio album Flash. But on this one, I always like to go back to the original and the warm, beautiful and soulful vocals by The Impressions – to me, singing doesn’t get much better!

Peter Green/A Fool No More

I think it’s safe to assume Peter Green doesn’t need much of an introduction. The English blues rock singer-songwriter and guitarist is best known as the first leader of Fleetwood Mac, initially called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer, the band he formed following his departure from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with former Bluesbreakers members Mick Fleetwood (drums) and Jeremy Spencer (guitar), as well as Bob Brunning (bass) who was subsequently replaced by Green’s first choice John McVie. What’s perhaps less widely known outside of fan circles is Peter Green’s solo career he launched after leaving Fleetwood Mac in May 1970 due to drug addiction and mental health issues. Unfortunately, these demons would stay with him for a long time and impact his career, especially during the ’70s. A Fool No More, written by Green, is a track from his excellent second solo album In the Skies. The record was released in May 1979 after eight years of professional obscurity due to treatment for schizophrenia in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-’70s. Yikes- it’s pretty scary what havoc LSD can cause! Considering that, it’s even more remarkable how amazing Green sounds. Check it out!

Stevie Wonder/I Wish

Let’s speed things up with the groovy I Wish, a tune by Stevie Wonder from his 18th studio album Songs in the Key of Life released in September 1976. Frankly, I could have selected any other track from what’s widely considered Wonder’s magnum opus. It’s the climax of his so called classic period, a series of five ’70s albums spanning Music of My Mind (1972) to Songs in the Key of Life. I Wish, which like most other tracks on this double-LP were solely written by Wonder, also became the lead single in December 1976 – and his fourth no. 1 ’70s hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also topped the charts in Canada, and was a top 10 in Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands and the UK. Take it away, Stevie!

John Mellencamp/Melting Pot

Here’s what you might call an out-of-left-field pick from John Mellencamp, one of my long-time favorite artists. Melting Pot is a great rocker from his 11th studio album Whenever We Wanted that appeared in October 1991. It marked a bit of a departure from Mellencamp’s two previous albums Big Daddy (1989) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), on which he had begun incorporating elements of roots music. Instead, Whenever We Wanted is more reminiscent of the straight rock Mellencamp had delivered on earlier albums like American Fool (1982), Uh-Huh (1983) and Scarecrow (1985). Like all other tunes except for one on the album, Melting Pot was written by Mellencamp. While Whenever We Wanted didn’t do as well on the charts as the aforementioned other albums, it still placed within the top 20 in the U.S., reaching no. 17 on the Billboard 200. The album performed best in Australia where it peaked at no. 3.

David Bowie/Suffragette City

Time to wrap up this installment of The Sunday Six. Let’s go with another great rocker: Suffragette City by David Bowie. If you’ve read my blog, you probably know I really dig Bowie’s glam rock period. As such, it’s perhaps not surprising that his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is my favorite. It was released in June 1972. Suffragette City also became the B-side of lead single Starman that appeared ahead of the album in February that year. Eventually and deservedly, Suffragette City eventually ended up on the A-side of a 1976 single that was backed by Stay to promote the fantastic compilation Changesonebowie. This is one kickass rock & roll song. Bowie said it best, or I should say sang it best: Ohhh, wham bam thank you ma’am!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

My Playlist: Bob Marley

In my case, reggae is a bit like jazz: I don’t dislike it but listen to it infrequently. When I do, the artist I keep coming back to is Bob Marley. My best friend who I’m fortunate to still call that way to this day got me into Marley with Babylon by Bus. It must have been around 1980 when he bought that excellent live album by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I recorded the double-LP right away on music cassette and it quickly became a favorite. Since I didn’t throw out my MCs and don’t think I ever will, the tape must still be floating around somewhere.

Bob Marley was born as Robert Nesta Marley on the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica on February 6, 1945. While his father Norval Sinclair Marley provided financial support, Bob rarely saw him. Two years after Norval’s death, his mother Cedella Malcolm moved with then 12-year-old Bob to Trenchtown, a low-income community in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. There, Cedella had a daughter with Thadeus Livingston, the father of Neville Livingston who later became known as Bunny Wailer.

Bob Marley

In the late 1950s, a new music genre called ska became popular in Jamaica, combining elements of Caribbean music with American jazz and R&B. By the mid-’60s, ska evolved into rock steady, the predecessor to reggae. The main characteristic feature all three music styles share is the rhythmic accentuation on the offbeat. Based on my understanding, one difference is tempo. While ska generally is fairly upbeat, rock steady has a slower beat, which tends to be further slowed down in reggae. It is that laid back groove of the latter I particularly dig.

In 1963, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) started taking vocal lessons with local singer Joe Higgs who introduced them to Winston Hubert McIntosh, who became known as Peter Tosh. Higgs also taught Marley how to play the guitar. The trio formed the core of what would become The Wailers. They were soon joined by Junior Braithwaite (vocals), as well as backing vocalists Cherry Smith and Beverley Kelso.

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Livingston 1964
From left: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Wailer ca. 1964

In December 1963, The Wailers released their first single Simmer Down, backed by ska group The Skatalites. By February 1964, the tune had hit no. 1 in Jamaica. The band’s debut album The Wailing Wailers appeared in late 1965. Only released on the island, it essentially was a compilation of tunes previously recorded in 1964 and 1965. The Wailers’ first album released outside of Jamaica was their sophomore Soul Rebels from December 1970.

Following the depature of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1974, Marley continued as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Marley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. The Wailers at that time featured Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums, percussion), Bernard Harvey (piano, organ), Jean Roussel (keyboards) and Al Anderson (lead guitar), along with the so-called I-Threes, a backing vocal trio consisting of Marley’s wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – quite an army!

Bob Marley and the Wailers live

In July 1977, a malignant melanoma lesion was found under one of Marley’s toe nails. Due to his Rastafari beliefs and out of concern it would disrupt touring, Marley did not follow the medical advice to have his toe amputated and instead chose less invasive treatment. Unfortunately, it is safe to assume his decision most likely cost him his life less than four years later. On May 11, 1981, Marley passed away at a U.S. hospital in Miami at the age of 36. The cancer had spread throughout his body.

Altogether, Marley released 11 studio and two live albums during his lifetime. His posthumous greatest hits compilation Legend from May 1984 became the best-selling reggae album of all time, with sales in the U.S. and worldwide exceeding 15 million and 28 million copies, respectively. At an estimated total of more than 75 million sold records, Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling artists. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at no. 11 on their 2007 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Let’s get to some music!

I’m skipping Marley’s early stage, since I’m not well familiar with it. Instead, I’d like to kick things off with Stir It Up, a Bob Marley tune that was included on The Wailers’ fifth studio album Catch a Fire from April 1973. It proved to be a good title – together with a supporting tour of England and the U.S., the record helped put the band on the map internationally.

In October 1973, The Wailers released their sixth studio album Burnin’, the last with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. The lead single was the Marley-penned I Shot the Sheriff, which reached no. 67 in the UK and didn’t chart in the U.S. at all – that is until 1974, when Eric Clapton scored a major international hit with a great cover version. It topped the charts in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, and was a top 10 in the UK and various other European countries. Similar to Cream and The Rolling Stones, who elevated African-American blues artists in the ’60s, Clapton’s cover significantly raised Marley’s international profile.

One of Marley’s best-known tunes is No Woman, No Cry, which he initially recorded for Natty Dread, the first album released as Bob Marley and the Wailers in October 1974. According to Rolling Stone, which included the song at no. 37 in their 2011 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Marley gave the official songwriting credit to his friend Vincent Ford to help keep Ford’s Kingston soup kitchen running. The most popular version of that song appeared on Live!, the first live album by Marley and the band from December 1975, which captured a gig in London in July that year. That version also came out seperately as a single and peaked at no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart, marking the band’s first top 10 hit in Britain.

Rastaman Vibration was Bob Marley’s first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, climbing to no. 8. Released in April 1976, it reached no. 15 in the UK and no. 26 in New Zealand. Here’s the opener Positive Vibration, another tune credited to Marley’s friend Vincent Ford.

After an assassination attempt in Jamaica in December 1976, which wounded but did not kill him, Marley relocated to London where he recorded his ninth album. Exodus, released in June 1977, elevated Marley to international stardoom and received Gold certifications in the UK, U.S. and Canada. Here’s the infectious Jamming, which also became one of the album’s six singles.

Next up: A fantastic live version of Is This Love from the aforementioned Babylon by Bus, released in November 1978. Marley and his band first recorded the tune for their 10th studio album Kaya from March 1978. Similar to No Woman, No Cry, I think the live version of Is This Love is superior to the initial studio recording. It has always been one of my favorite tracks on Babylon by Bus.

At the end of 1978, Bob Marley made his first visit to Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafari. He subsequently became a supporter of Pan-African solidarity. This is reflected on his 11th studio album Survival that came out in October 1979. One of the songs, Zimbabwe, celebrates the liberation of the country formerly called Rhodesia.

One of the grooviest Bob Marley tunes is Could You Be Loved, which blends reggae with dance music. It became one of his highest-charting singles in the UK where it peaked at no. 5. While in the U.S. it missed the Hot 100, it reached no. 6 on the Dance Clubs Songs, another Billboard chart. Could You Be Loved was included on Uprising from June 1980, the final album released during Marley’s lifetime.

I’d like to wrap up with two more tunes that came out after Marley’s death. The first is Buffalo Soldier from Confrontation, a studio album that appeared in May 1983. The record was a compilation of unreleased material and singles recorded during Marley’s lifetime. Buffalo Soldier is co-credited to Marley and Jamaican DJ, musician and reggae producer Noel George Williams, who was known as King Sporty. The tune became Marley’s highest-charting UK single peaking at no. 4. It was even more successful in New Zealand where it reached no. 3.

This bring me to the final tune and one of by favorites by Bob Marley: Iron Lion Zion. Originally, Marley wrote and first recorded that song in 1973 or 1974. But it was not released until October 1992, when it first appeared on a four-disc box set called Songs of Freedom. The version I’m featuring here is a remix that was included on Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, an addendum to the 1984 compilation Legend.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Marley website; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: September 8

1952: Twenty-two-year-old Ray Charles, one of the greatest voices in jazz, R&B, blues and soul, recorded his first session for Atlantic Records. In June that year, the record company had bought out his contract from Swingtime for $2,500, the equivalent of approximately $23,700 today. With hits like I’ve Got A Woman, A Fool For You and What I’d Say Charles would release before he moved on to ABC-Paramount in November 1959, let’s just say Atlantic’s investment paid off handsomely. One of the four cuts Charles recorded during that first session with Atlantic was Roll With My Baby by Sam Sweet, which became his first single for the label backed by The Midnight Hour, another tune Sweet had written. Check out the great groove on this tune, which wants to make you snip along with your fingers!

1957: The infectious Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson was released for the first time. It gave “Mr. Excitement” his first solo hit, peaking at no. 6 on the U.K. Official Charts and climbing to no. 45 on the U.S. Cash Box chart, both in November that year. It would take another 29 years before the great tune, which was co-written by Berry Gordy, Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua, and Wilson’s cousin Roquel “Billy” Davis, would hit no. 1 in the U.K. in November 1986. Unfortunately, Wilson who passed away in January 1984, was not able to celebrate the tune’s late success. And, yes, feel free to sing along r-r-r-r-r-rolling that “r.”

1964: The Beatles performed two concerts that night at the Forum in Montreal, Canada before a crowd of 21,000 fans. At that time, Beatlemania was going on in full swing with its insanity, which for this particular event included death threats from French-Canadian separatists. The Fab Four never returned to Montreal thereafter. The two gigs that night included their standard 12-song set Twist And Shout, You Can’t Do That, All My Loving, She Loves You, Things We Said Today, Roll Over Beethoven, Can’t Buy Me Love, If I Fell, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Boys, A Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. Here’s an audio recording, which supposedly is from that show. It’s posted on The Beatles Bible, the source of the ultimate Fab Fab truth. The quality is mediocre, but hey, let’s not bitch here, it’s pop music history!

1973: Speaking of great voices, Marvin Gaye reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with the title track of his thirteenth studio album Let’s Get It On. Co-written by Gaye and Ed Townsend, the tune became his second no. 1 single in the U.S. after I Heard It Through The Grapevine from October 1968. Remarkably, Gaye would top the U.S. chart only one more time with Got To Give It Up released in March 1977. Let’s Get It On performed more moderately in the U.K., peaking at no. 31. Well, let’s get it on to a clip of the great tune!

1974: Eric Clapton topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his excellent cover of I Shot The Sheriff. Written by Bob Marley and first recorded for the sixth studio album by The Wailers Burnin’ from October 1973, the tune became Clapton’s only no. 1 single on the Hot 100. The song also appeared on his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which appeared in July 1972 and was his first record after beating a three-year heroin addiction.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube