What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

Clips & Pix: John Mayer/Waiting on the World to Change

I still remember initially I was in complete disbelief that this fantastic tune was written John Mayer. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always thought of Mayer as a decent songwriter and a great guitarist. I just didn’t believe he had so much soul in him! You could easily imagine somebody like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield having performed this song.

Waiting on the World to Change, released in July 2006, became the lead single to Mayer’s third studio album Continuum that appeared in September of the same year. According to Songfacts, the reflective tune describes how most people deal with problems in the world. When Mayer sings, “Me and all my friends, we are all misunderstood, say we stand for nothing but there’s no way we ever could,” he’s talking about his generation and their lack of faith in the government – all we can do is wait, and it seems like everyone is waiting for the world to become a better place.

Songfacts further notes, In an interview with the Daily Mail December 21, 2007 Mayer explained why he wrote this song that makes a point without laboring matters: “I wanted to start a debate. Most of us are happy to wait for things to change.”

Waiting on the World to Change became one of Mayer’s most successful singles. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It also charted in Canada, New Zealand and a few European countries. Additionally, the tune won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in February 2007.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Jessy Wilson/Phase

Does it sometimes happen to you as well that suddenly you remember an artist you really liked when you first discovered them but then they somehow completely disappeared from your radar screen? That’s exactly the experience I had earlier today with Muddy Magnolias and their fantastic debut album Broken People from October 2016. I had first come across this urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North in August 2017 and blogged about the record’s title track here.

So when I checked whether they had released any new music in the meantime, it turned out North had left at the end of 2017. That’s too bad since I really dug their sound! But there was some good news. I couldn’t find any trace of North but learned Wilson went on to release her solo debut Phase in May 2019. And while at least initially I don’t like it as much as Broken People, there are some pretty intriguing tunes on this album.

MuddyMagnolias
Jessy Wilson (left) and Kallie North

Before getting to the record, I’d like to say a few words about Wilson. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, listening to artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Biggie. After high school, Wilson became a backup singer, working and touring with artists like Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Faith Hill and Macy Gray. She also met John Legend who became her mentor. In 2013, she decided to strike out on her own as a full-time songwriter and moved to Nashville, Tenn.

There she met North, who originally hailed from Beaumont, Texas, and had worked as a photographer before deciding to pursue a career in music. Eventually, Muddy Magnolias got to Third Generation Records, which released their above-mentioned debut in October 2016. North left at the end of 2017. While her departure was a surprise to those following the band and no official reason was given at the time, Wilson during a November 2019 interview with NPR said she had seen it coming. Unlike Wilson who had been well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the music business and the demands of touring, the lifestyle became too overwhelming for a married woman like North whose husband as a farmer could not accompany her on the road.

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Wilson decided to soldier on by herself. Not only that but she already had decided she wanted to work with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. “Growing up in New York listening to hip hop…but still loving rock & roll music, I really became infatuated with the Black Keys,” Wilson told NPR. “And it was not just because it was rock music, it was music that was informed by all of the other stuff I really love. You know, when I would listen to Dan’s (Auerbach) vocals, I could hear Smokey Robinson in there. When I would listen to Patrick’s drumming, I could hear like that Wu-Tang girth, just like swag…for my ears and my taste, they were the only rock band that struck me that had like that swag, that street swag.”

Apparently, it took Wilson some time to convince Carney who initially did not appear to be impressed with her songs. But eventually, he agreed to work with her. This resulted in 11 tracks that with one exception are all co-written by Wilson, Carney and Jim McFarlin. In addition to being the producer, Carney also provides drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. McFarlin handles keyboards and backing vocals, while Wilson sings lead and backing vocals and plays keyboards. Other musicians on the album include Casey Kaufman (cello) and Steve Marion (guitar). Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the great opener Oh, Baby!

Clap Your Hands is an intriguing mix of hip hop, rock and R&B. Here’s the official video.

Waiting On… is a beautiful soulful ballad and a standout on the album. The tune is credited to an army of people who in addition to Wilson, Carney, McFarlin and Wilson’s former partner Kallie North include Luke Enyeart, Weldon Irvine, Calvin Knowles and interestingly Nina Simone. Not sure what the deal with Simone is – perhaps they sampled a part of one of her songs.

Another cool tune is aptly called Stay Cool.

Let’s do one more: Cold In the South.

Phase definitely is outside my core wheelhouse. But lately, the boundaries of that core wheelhouse have started to become a bit fuzzy. Plus, at the end of the day what really matters is whether I dig music or not.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube

Performing Live From Their Homes

A selection of artists who don’t allow the coronavirus to stop the music

By now it’s safe to assume everybody is getting tired to read about COVID-19, so I’ll keep it light. Obviously, one of the many industries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus is the concert business. Painfully but rightly, shows are being canceled or rescheduled all over the place. It simply would be irresponsible to do anything else. The good news is this doesn’t mean live performances have come to a standstill.

For example, if you follow the “right” pages on Facebook, you can receive plenty of notifications about live gigs streamed online. Sure, in nearly all cases, these performances are low key and improvised, and the majority of artists who pop up aren’t necessarily well-known. Still, there is plenty of great live music you can enjoy over the internet these days. I would also argue that low tech and improvised gigs have their own charm.

Following are some recent performances captured by Rolling Stone as part of their In My Room series. I realize these gigs are not 100 percent comparable to concerts that are live-streamed. It’s also safe to assume there was some post-production done to these clips, but the footage still conveys a good deal of spontaneity to me. It’s all about the spirit to keep the music going but doing so in a responsible way, so let’s get to some of it!

Graham Nash/Our House, 4+20 & Teach Your Children

I simply love everything about this clip. To start, Graham Nash remains a compelling artist. Let’s not forget the man is 78 years old. I also like how he is weaving in public service announcements throughout this little concert performed at his home. To me, he comes across as very genuine. All of the tunes are from Déjà Vu, the sophomore album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the greatest albums that have ever been recorded. Our House and Teach Your Children are Nash compositions, while 4+20 was written by Stephen Stills. Obviously, much of CSNY’s magic was in their incredible harmony vocals, which is impossible for Nash to replicate, but none of this really matters. Just watching the man perform makes me happy. You can see his passion. That’s what it’s all about!

John Fogerty/Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising & Long As I Can See the Light

John Fogerty is another rock & roll hero in my book. If I recall it correctly, Have You Ever Seen the Rain was the first Creedence Clearwater Revival song I ever heard as a young kid back my sister. My sister had that tune on vinyl as a 45 single. I’ve loved Fogerty and this band ever since! Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Bad Moon Rising and Long As I Can See the Light were all written by Fogerty. They appeared on CCR’s Pendulum, Green River and Cosmo’s Factory studio albums from December 1970, August 1969 and July 1970, respectively. My personal highlight in the above series is Fogerty’s performance of the third tune on the piano.

Angélique Kidjo/Gimme Shelter, The Overload & Move On Up

‘Damn, damn and damn’ is all I can say watching Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist of Nigerian descent, sing the above tunes. Have you ever heard such a funky rendition of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic Gimme Shelter? Or how ’bout Move On Up, one my favorite songs by Curtis Mayfield from his 1970 solo debut album, which she turns into some African liberation song? Her version of The Overload, a tune by Talking Heads from their fourth studio album Remain in Light from October 1980, is almost more haunting than the original. This is some really cool stuff – check it out!

Yola and Birds of Chicago/At Last, It Ain’t Easier & Second Cousin

Let’s do one more and keep the best for last. I had neither been aware of English musician and singer-songwriter Yola nor Birds of Chicago, an Americana/folk band from the Windy City led by husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell. But after I had watched that clip, I was simply blown away – passionate and all-out beautiful singing simply doesn’t get much better. And the songs they selected are terrific! At Last, co-written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, was the title of the debut album by Etta James, released in November 1960. This a capella version of the tune is the highlight of the series. It Ain’t Easier was written by Yola and appeared on her debut album Walk Through Fire from February 2019. Last but not least is Second Cousin, which appears to be a tune by Birds of Chicago.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 15

Time for another installment in my long-running, somewhat geeky music history feature. I still get a kick out of researching what happened on a certain date throughout the decades in rock & roll, even though it’s such an arbitrary concept. Admittedly, I’m using the term rock & roll loosely here. It pretty much includes all music genres I dig – hey, it’s my blog, so I get to make the rules. Without further ado, let’s get to March 15!

1967: The Beatles began work on Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison. According to The Beatles Bible, Harrison had written the tune at the London home of longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann who first had met the band in Hamburg and had shared a flat with Harrison and Ringo Starr in the British capital in early ’60s. Several musicians from the collective Asian Music Circle played traditional Indian instruments during the recording session. They were joined by Harrison and The Beatles’ then-personal assistant Neil Aspinall on tamburas. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it,” commented sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “Everyone was amazed when they first heard a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances.” Within You Without You was included on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of Only a Northern Song, another Harrison tune that would later appear on Yellow Submarine.

1969: Cream hit the top spot on the UK Albums Chart with their fourth and final studio album appropriately titled Goodbye. It would stay in that position for two weeks. Here’s one of the record’s tracks, Politician, which also is one of my favorite Cream tunes. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Politician was one of three live tracks on the record that were captured on October 19, 1968, at The Forum in Los Angeles during the band’s farewell tour. By the time Goodbye came out in February 1969, Cream had already disbanded.

1975: Black Water, a classic by The Doobie Brothers, climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only two no. 1 hits the band had in the U.S. The second one was What a Fool Believes in 1979. Penned by Patrick Simmons who also sang lead, Black Water first appeared on the Doobies’ fourth studio album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in February 1974. Interestingly, the initial single release of Black Water was as the b-side to the record’s lead single Another Park, Another Sunday. While it’s not a bad song, you still have to wonder about that decision, which seems to suggest that between the band and the record company, they hadn’t quite noticed what a gem Black Water was.

1986: The Bangles reached no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart with Manic Monday, scoring their first hit, which also peaked at no. 2 in the U.S., Australia, Germany and Ireland, and placed in the top 5 in Austria, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. Written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher, the tune was included on the American pop-rock band’s sophomore album Different Light, which had appeared in January of the same year. I generally find listening to The Bangles fairly enjoyable. In particular, I like their harmony singing, plus they have some pretty catchy songs. Just please spare me with Eternal Flame, which at the time was hopelessly burned by overexposure on the radio back in Germany and I suspect in many other countries. BTW, The Bangles are still around in almost their original lineup. Following the band’s breakup in 1989, they reunited in 1998.

1999: Curtis MayfieldDel ShannonDusty SpringfieldPaul McCartneyThe Staple SingersBilly Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Sean Combs, Art Alexakis, Elton John, Neil Young, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles and Bono, respectively –  sounds fucking unreal to me! Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band to perform at the ceremony. Here are Bruce and the boys with Wilson Pickett, performing a scorching version of In The Midnight Hour, a Stax classic Pickett had co-written with Steve Cropper in 1965. Watching Pickett say he wants to kick Bruce in the ass but will keep it light since he’s The Boss and Bruce responding ‘Let’s give it a shot’ is priceless –  damn, this wants me to go and listen to some kickass live music, so badly – fuck you, COVID-19!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

Britain’s Ruby Turner Releases Classic Soul Gem

Until this morning, I had never heard of Ruby Turner. Then I came across Don’t Cry Over Yesterday, a tune from her new album Love Was Here released on January 24th. After listening to the first few songs, I was immediately hooked – something that rarely happens. The Jamaican born British soul, gospel and R&B singer’s voice, the cool vibe of the ‘70s style soul tunes and the excellent sound of her backing musicians deliver a powerful package. I love it!

Turner is not a newcomer. In fact, she has been performing since 1983, and this is her 20th solo album. Turner has also worked with other artists like Bryan Ferry, Steve Winwood, Mick Jagger and UB40. And yet, I don’t recall having heard her name in the past. Ever. Have you? I’d be curious to know. Of course, I can’t exclude the possibility it’s plain ignorance on my part.

According to the bio on her website, Ruby Turner was born in Jamaica and grew up in Montego Bay. Her grandfather sang the lead in one of the island’s gospel groups. Moving to England when she was 9, Ruby has lived there ever since. Her career to date has always had many unexpected twists and turns with major tours, theatre and TV appearances…Her major break came in the mid 1980s, when she was asked to join ‘Culture Club’ at the height of their stardom…An offer of a solo record deal closely followed and she soon signed to Jive Records, part of the Zomba Group.

Between 1986 and 1995, eight of Turner’s singles entered the UK Singles Chart. In February 1990, she also scored a no. 1 hit on the Billboard R&B Chart with It’s Gonna Be Alright, a tune she wrote – apparently a rare feat that has been accomplished by less than ten British singles. Additionally, Turner has done acting, appearing on stage and television and in film. And, oh, she was also appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2016 Birthday Honours for services to music. Time to get to Love Was Here!

A good place to start is the opener Got to be Done. With a great groove, catchy chorus and neat sound, the tune sets the tone for the entire album. Like all except one of the 11 tracks, the song was co-written by Turner and the production team of Nick Atkinson and Kat Eaton.

Here’s the aforementioned Don’t Cry Over Yesterday.

Another gem is Under Your Sky.

Next up: The album’s title track.

The last tune I’d like to call is Runaway.

Frankly, I could have selected any of the other songs on the album. Each of these tunes is beautifully crafted and delivered with Turner’s warm and powerful voice and a backing band that just sounds great.

In a review on Something Else!, Turner is quoted as saying the album “is one I’ve always wanted to make. The feel and grooves I’ve heard and loved: Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King, Ry Cooder, the Rev. Al Green to name but a few.” While these are formidable reference artists, I feel Turner’s comments are not overblown.

“The opportunity came through meeting Nick Atkinson and Kat Eaton, a dynamic, confident and confident production team,” she added. “Their writing and approach was irresistible. They ignited my desire to write again, and I loved the creative process.”

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the great-sounding musicians playing on this album. Based on another review in AmericanBluesScene.com, they include Atkinson (guitar), Joe Glossop (keyboards), Jeremy Meek (bass) and John Blease (drums).

Love Was Here is an album of high quality and soulful delivery you rarely find among new music these days – a true gem!

Sources: Wikipedia; SomethingElseToReview.com; AmericanBluesScene.com; YouTube

My Playlist: Huey Lewis And The News

In the ’80s when I was still living in Germany, you couldn’t switch on the radio without encountering Huey Lewis And The News. By the end of that decade, I think it’s fair to say their popularity had significantly decreased. Just recently, I was reminded of the band when it was, well, back in the news, revealing a new single and their upcoming 10th studio album scheduled for next year. That announcement came after Huey Lewis revealed last April he was suffering from hearing loss as a result of Ménière’s disease. According to Wikipedia, it’s an incurable disorder of the inner ear, which leads to a variety of symptoms, including vertigo, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), hearing loss and a fullness in the ear. The condition forced Lewis to cancel all upcoming tour dates.

I started paying attention to Huey Lewis And The News when they released their third studio album Sports in September 1983. The record, which yieled four top 10 hits in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, catapulted the band to international stardom. I got the album on vinyl at the time and really dug it. I like the group to this day and saw them first in the ’80s in Germany and a second time in July 2011 at a local theatre in New Brunswick, N.J. The second show was in the wake of their last studio from 2010,  Soulsville, a nice tribute to artists and music of Stax Records. The band still sounded great. I thought it would be fun putting together a playlist featuring some their songs.

I’d like to kick things off with Do You Believe In Love, the first top 10 hit for Huey Lewis And The News on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, it appeared on their sophomore album Picture This from January 1982.

On to the aforementioned hugely successful Sports. How successful? How about seven times Platinum! Records selling like this simply no longer exist these days. Here is the great opener The Heart of Rock & Roll. Co-written by Huey Lewis and the band’s co-founding member, guitarist and saxophone player Johnny Colla, the uptempo pop rocker showcases Colla’s nice sax chops.

Next up is The Power Of Love, which gave the band their first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Co-written by Lewis, Colla and lead guitarist Chris Hayes, it’s probably their best known song, largely because it was featured in the 1985 blockbuster motion picture Back To The Future staring Michael J. Fox. Here’s a clip with footage from the film, one of the most memorable of that decade, in my opinion.

In August 1986, Huey Lews And The News released their fourth studio album Fore! Not only did the album top the Billboard 200, but it also gave the band two additional no. 1 hits: Jacob’s Ladder and tune I’d like to feature here: Stuck With You, a co-write by Lewis and Hayes. In addition to Lewis’ lead vocals, the song nicely illustrates the News’ great harmony singing.

The band’s next album Small World from 1988 featured a full-blown horn section, giving it a nice soulful vibe. But while the record climbed into the top 20 on the Billboard 200, it wasn’t as successful as Fore! and Sports. Here’s Perfect World, a tune written by Alex Call, guitarist, vocalist and founding member of a country rock band called Clover, in which Lewis had played with Call from 1972 until 1979, prior to forming Huey Lewis And The News.

In 1993, the band recorded a beautiful a cappella cover of the Curtis Mayfield tune It’s All Right for a tribute album titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. It’s another impressive illustration of the News’ vocal harmony abilities. Mayfield wrote the song in 1963 and recorded it with his band The Impressions for their eponymous debut record that came out in August that year. Feel free to snip along!

For the next tune, I’d like to jump to the News’ most recent album, the aformentioned Soulsville that was released in October 2010. Here’s the band’s great take of Respect Yourself. It features gospel singer Dorothy Combs Morrison who is sharing vocals with Lewis. Co-written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, the song was first recorded by The Staple Singers for their 1972 album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.

The last track I’d like to highlight is the band’s new single Her Love Is Killing Me, a nice rocker with a bluesy touch, featuring a great sounding Lewis on vocals and harmonica, the band’s first new tune in more than a decade. According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the song was recorded and produced by the News at their own studio in San Rafael, Calif. In addition to Lewis, the band still includes three co-founding members: Colla, Bill Gibson (drums) and Sean Hopper (keyboards). The title and exact timing for the new album have not been announced yet.

Will fans be able to see Huey Lewis And The News on the road again? While Lewis, who is 69 years old, obviously was able to record the song and sounds well, the prospects for doing concerts look less certain. “My hearing fluctuates episodically from bad to almost deaf,” Lewis told the Chronicle. “When it’s simply ‘bad,’ with the use of my earpieces, I can hear speech. I’m hoping fluctuating is a good sign and I can improve enough to hear music and sing.” He also said, “I haven’t sung with the band in a year and 10 months.”

Sources: Wikipedia, San Francisco Chronicle, YouTube

Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Curtis Mayfield/Curtis

Curtis Mayfield’s first solo album was a departure from most of 60s pop-oriented soul with more edgy sounds and lyrics, a direction that would also be embraced by other black artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

By the time Curtis Mayfield released his first solo album Curtis in Sep 1970, he already had established himself as a successful music artist for more than 10 years, especially as leader of the pop soul and R&B band The Impressions.  But while songs like People Get Ready and Keep on Pushing had started to introduce lyrics with a social message, Mayfield felt what was generally expected of The Impressions did not sufficiently allow him to express himself, both musically and lyrically.

Curtis Side A

Right from the get-go with (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re Going to Go, Mayfield makes it crystal clear he has left behind the days of For Your Precious Love, Gypsy Woman and It’s All Right. For the record, I think all three songs are beautifully executed doo-wop soul. The point is they are very different from the music on Curtis. Perhaps an excerpt from Don’t Worry illustrates it best:

Everybody smoke/Use the pill and the dope/Educated fools/From uneducated schools/Pimping people is the rule/Polluted water in the pool/And Nixon talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/But they don’t know/There can be no show/And if there’s hell below/We’re all gonna go.

This is pretty heavy stuff. It’s also rather eerie how relevant these lyrics remain in present-day America, more than 45 years after they were written! Like much of the other music on the album, the song doesn’t have a catchy hook line but instead is fueled by a grove dominated by congas, funky guitars, jazz and orchestral parts.

Curtis Side B

The standout on the album, both musically and lyrically, is Move On Up, which remains one of the greatest funk-soul songs to this day. The fantastic horn intro and the conga-driven beat, along with Mayfield’s mesmerizing silky falsetto, is simply irresistible. Unlike the dark lyrics of the album’s other songs, Mayfield conveys a more upbeat message, saying there is hope after all for people if they work hard and persist. Again, an excerpt illustrates it best:

Take nothing less, than the second best/Do not obey, you must keep your say/You can pass the test/Just move on up, to a greater day/With just a little faith/If you put your mind to it you can surely do it.

While Curtis performed well upon its release, hitting no. 1 on the Billboard Black Albums and no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts, it got mixed reviews from music critics some of whom simply didn’t get what Mayfield was doing. Wendell John wrote in Rolling Stone, “Lyrically, his songs are a lot more rhyme than reason…The arrangements are all pretty uninspired, a little bit halfhearted – maybe largely because there’s so little melodic meat to most of the tunes.”

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau at first wasn’t particularly impressed either but later reassessed his views: “Initially I distrusted these putatively middlebrow guides to black pride–“Miss Black America” indeed. But a lot of black people found them estimable, so I listened some more, and I’m glad…What did surprise me was that the whole project seemed less and less middlebrow as I got to know it.” Oh, well…

Bruce Eder from AllMusic said Curtis “was practically the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album of 70s soul, helping with its content and success to open the whole genre to much bigger, richer musical canvases than artists had previously worked with.”

Finally, let the music speak. Here’s a clip of Mayfield performing Move On Up live.  While playing the horn parts on keyboards isn’t as good as the real instruments, even without the horns, the song and Mayfield’s voice shine. And, by the way, what a killer band!

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau Consumer Guide Reviews, YouTube