My Playlist: Aretha Franklin

Earlier this year, I got very close to seeing Aretha Franklin live at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. I had already purchased two tickets and was thrilled to finally experience who I felt was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. Another cool thing was that the March 25th show would have coincided with her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On very short notice, the concert was cancelled due to an unidentified illness. When media reported shortly thereafter that Franklin’s doctor had ordered three months of absolute rest, I didn’t have a good feeling. After all, this wasn’t the first time she had dealt with health issues. Yesterday, the Queen of Soul passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer, barely five months after her birthday and what I’m sure would have been an unforgettable performance.

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Aretha Franklin performing at the VH1 Divas 2001

Given the vast number of obituaries that have been published since news about her untimely death broke yesterday morning, I’m not going to develop yet another one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what will remain – an amazing amount of music by an amazing performer, released over a 60-year-plus professional career.

Based on Wikipedia, Franklin’s enormous catalog includes 42 studio albums, six live albums, 131 singles and numerous compilations. While it’s obviously impossible to capture all of that music in one playlist while keeping it to no more than 10 tracks, I tried to come up with tunes that span her entire recording period.

Where to start the undertaking? Well, how about Franklin’s studio debut Songs Of Faith from 1956, which was recorded live at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Here’s While The Blood Runs Warm. Franklin was only 14 years old at the time, but you can already hear her powerful voice. This is giving me goosebumps!

Franklin’s fourth studio album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin from August 1962 became her first charting record, reaching no. 69 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Here’s Try A Little Tenderness, a tune I dig, written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, and first recorded by the Ray Nobel Orchestra in December 1932. It has since been covered by many other artists, who in addition to Franklin most notably included Otis Redding in 1966.

Respect is perhaps the best-known Aretha Franklin song. The signature tune, which was written and first released by Otis Redding in 1965, appeared on her 11th studio album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You from March 1967. The song was Franklin’s first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, as well as the Cash Box chart. The record became her highest charting to date, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart and topping the magazine’s R&B chart.

Another Franklin signature song undoubtedly is Think, co-written by her and her manager and first husband Ted White. The feminism anthem appeared on her 15th studio album Aretha Now in June 1968 and was also released separately as a single in May of the same year. White’s involvement in the song’s writing looks ironical, given Franklin divorced him in 1969, following reports of domestic abuse.

This Girl’s In Love With You was Franklin’s first ’70s album appearing in January that year, and her 18th studio album overall. Intriguingly, it includes the first commercial release of Let It Be, preceding The Beatles’ version by two months, and the following take of The Weight written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Oh, and if the guy on the slide guitar somehow seems to sound familiar, it was Duane Allman. I think not only is this soulful cover smoking hot, but it’s also a great illustration of Franklin’s great ability to take songs written by others and make them her own.

In February 1974, Franklin released her 22nd studio album Let Me Be In Your Life.  The second single from that record was Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), co-written by Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax. It was first recorded by Wonder in 1967, though he didn’t release his version until 1977. The tune became a million-seller for Franklin, topping the Billboard R&B chart and peaking at no. 2 on the Hot 100. It was her last major ’70s hit.

Jumping to the ’80s, Franklin collaborated on a number of songs with various other artists during that decade, such as George Benson, Elton John, George Michael and Eurhythmics. The tune I’d like to highlight in this context is Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, another feminist anthem that Franklin recorded with Eurhythmics. Apart from appearing as a single in October 1985, the tune was included on Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and the British pop duo’s Be Yourself Tonight studio albums. Co-written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the song reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 9 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart. The track proves that Franklin could even make an ’80s commercial pop tune sound pretty hot.

A Rose Is Still A Rose, released in March 1998, was Franklin’s last studio album that reached Gold certification and became her best-selling record of the ’90s. Following is the title track, which was written by Lauryn Hill and is yet another feminist-based tune. It also appeared as a single one month ahead of the album, reaching no. 1, 5 and 26 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap Songs and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2003, Franklin’s 38th studio record So Damn Happy appeared. It included Wonderful, a song co-written by Aleese Simmons and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, which won Franklin the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Franklin’s 42nd and final studio album A Brand New Me was released in November 2017. It featured archival vocal recordings from her years with Atlantic Records combined with new arrangements by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals. Here’s I Say A Little Prayer, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David co-wrote for Dionne Warwick who released it in 1967 as as single. It was also included on her eighth studio release The Windows Of The World. Franklin originally recorded the tune for the above noted Aretha Now album and released it as a single in July 1968, scoring a no. 3 and 10 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

As previously noted, the goal of the above playlist was to be career-spanning. As such, not all of the songs are among my favorite tunes. But at the same time, I feel that because of her powerful voice and soulful delivery, Franklin simply never sang a bad song in the first place – at least I haven’t heard one yet. Two other artists who come to my mind in this context are Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. It’s a rare quality that is going to be part of Franklin’s legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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Cordovas Release New Album That Santa Fe Channel

Harmony vocals and warm guitar-driven sound feel like trip back to late ’60s and early ’70s

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Cordovas. Then I saw the Americana rock band from East Nashville, Tenn. in a free summer concert in the park in Woodbridge, N.J. and immediately liked what I heard. Frankly, I’m still a bit in disbelief they played there in the first place but, hey, that’s how they got on my radar screen, so I’m not complaining! Today, they released what I understand is their second studio album, That Santa Fe Channel, and it’s a real beauty.

Listening to Cordovas feels a bit like taking a journey back in time to the late ’60s and early ’70s, a period in music I love. Sometimes, my dear wife tells me I grew up during the wrong decade – she may be right about it!:-) Anyway, Cordovas’ beautiful triple-stacked harmony vocals and guitar-driven sound remind me of bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band, Grateful Dead, Eagles and Little Feat.

Billboard called Cordovas’ music a blend of Southern and California Americana. Rolling Stone, in a June 2017 feature titled 10 New Country Artists You Need To Know, described their sound as “decidedly American” and “caught halfway between Duane Allman’s Telecaster twang, the Dead’s hazy harmonies and the stoned swoon of California’s folk-rock heyday.”

I could never come up with such clever attributes, which is why I probably wouldn’t get far as a music journalist. But while I may be challenged to find the right buzz words, given my former band days as a bassist (admittedly many moons ago!) and close to four decades of listening experience, I feel confident enough to say that This Santa Fe Channel is great music, since I know it when I hear it! Of course, ultimately, it comes down to individual taste.

Cordovas
Cordovas (left to right): (left to right) Toby Weaver, Graham Spillman, Lucca Soria, Sevans Henderson and Joe Firstman

Led by bassist Joe Firstman, Cordovas have been around for some time. According to Billboard, the first album released under their name appeared in 2011 and essentially was a solo effort by Firstman. Firstman has a long history predating the band, which includes a 2002 solo debut album, War Of Women, and a stint as music director on Last Call with Carson Daly. “For this one [the new album] we had the idea to make it a band and go forward to do it,” he told Billboard. “I saw the weaknesses in that first (solo) process and I recognized that I felt like I was much stronger in the band, with guys that I really trust and are like-minded individuals. I wanted to build something that would last.”

The band’s current line-up, which also includes Toby Weaver (guitar, vocals), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals), Sevans Henderson (keyboards) and Graham Spillman (drums), has been together for five years. Cordovas are exceptionally tight-knit. Not only are they band mates who tour prolifically, but they also live together in the same compound in East Nashville. “The Cordovas are a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week job,” explains Firstman on the band’s Facebook page. “We’re eating dinner together, hanging out together, and making art. We don’t have rehearsal times, because rehearsal is always. You have to honor the art first, and everything else comes second.” I think it’s fair to say these conditions wouldn’t work for most bands, so kudos to Cordovas for their extraordinary commitment. Time to let some music do the talking, or perhaps I should better say the writing!

Here’s the album’s opener This Town’s A Drag. This tune nicely sets the tone for the record: Great harmony singing and a warm sound blending electric and pedal steel guitar.

Selfish Loner is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over four and a half minutes. Most tunes are only around three minutes or less. In fact, the nine songs on the album only total about 29 minutes altogether.

Here’s Frozen Rose, one of two tunes Cordovas had released as a single ahead of the album.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Standin’ On The Porch, which in addition to country rock throws in some blues. I also dig the tune’s groove.

That Santa Fe Channel was produced by Kenneth Pattengale, a singer and guitarist in American indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids. The album appears on ATO Records, an independent New York-based label founded in 2000 by Dave Matthews and manager Coran Capshaw. Among others, their roster includes Alabama Shakes.

Cordovas are currently where they appear to be most of the time – on the road. Their present U.S. schedule posted on their website goes until early October. Upcoming gigs include Chicago (Aug 16), Washington, D.C. (Aug 23), Fort Worth (Aug 30) and Cleveland (Sep 5). Earlier this year, the band toured in Europe.

Sources: Billboard, Rolling Stones, Cordovas Facebook page and website, ATO Records website, YouTube

The Hardware: Gibson Les Paul

Just like the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson’s Les Paul is one of the defining electric guitars

As Jim, who writes the excellent Music Enthusiast blog, pointed out a couple of weeks ago after I had published my post about the Fender Stratocaster, I could just as well have called the Gibson Les Paul the model that embodies the electric guitar. I couldn’t agree more; in fact, I had planned all along to do a post on the Les Paul as well, so let’s get to it!

Obviously, the legendary guitar is closely associated with American guitarist, songwriter and inventor Les Paul. The origins of the electric guitar that would bear his name date back to 1940 when Paul built the so-called “Log” at the Epiphone guitar factory. The crude instrument, which consisted of a 4″ × 4″ chunk of pine wood with strings and a pickup, was one of the first solid-body electric guitars. To improve the look, Paul took the wings of an Epiphone archtop body and added them to the pine body.

Les Paul Log

When Paul offered his idea to the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1941, they initially turned him down. That changed when rival Fender started marketing their Esquire model in 1950, a solid-body electric guitar that later turned into the Broadcaster and eventually the Telecaster.

After Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty realized the enthusiasm about the Esquire and the Broadcaster, he asked Paul to become a consultant to the company. In 1951, Paul, McCarty and his team started developing a solid-body. While apparently there are differing recollections who contributed what, the result was the first Gibson Les Paul, introduced in 1952. Paul used it for the first time in public in June that year during a live performance at the Paramount Theatre in New York.

Gibson Les Paul 1952

The initial Les Paul featured a mahogany body and neck, two P-90 single coil pickus and a one-piece, trapeze-style bridge/tailpiece with strings fitted under a steel stop-bar. In 1953, a second Les Paul model called the Les Paul Custom was introduced. A more important development happened in 1957, when Gibson introduced humbucker pickups on the Les Pauls. According to Wikipedia, a humbucker is a double-coil pick-up to cancel out the interference picked up by single-coil pickups, i.e., bucking the hum.

While the Les Paul models were formidable instruments, they were pretty heavy, which is why initially they weren’t widely embraced by guitarists. As a result, in 1961, Gibson introduced the Gibson SG, a lighter solid-body guitar that became the company’s best-selling model of all time. The company also stopped producing the traditional Les Paul.

Gibson SG 1961

Initially, Gibson launched the SG as the new Gibson Les Paul. But since the model had been developed without Paul’s knowledge and he was unhappy with the design, he requested that his name be removed from the headstock. Gibson agreed and Paul remained as a consultant with the company. Personally, I’ve always found the SG is a really cool looking guitar.

Ironically, a few years after production had been discontinued, Les Paul models started to become en vogue when guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovered and began using them. Other guitarists followed, such as Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Again reacting to popularity trends, Gibson reintroduced the Les Paul single cutaway guitar in July 1968. While there have been some tweaks over the years, the model remains in production to this day.

As indicated above, many guitarists have used Les Pauls. Following is a list of some of them.

Duane Allman

The legendary session musician and lead guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band has used various Les Paul models. Here’s a great clip of the band’s epic live performance of Whipping Post at the Fillmore East in 1970. I believe Allman was playing a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop.

Eric Clapton

While Clapton is better known for Fender Stratocaster guitars, he has also used Gibson models, including a 1960 sunburst Les Paul and a 1957 goldtop Les Paul Custom. In 2010, Gibson announced the Clapton 1960 Les Paul Standard signature model, also known as the “Beano Burst.” Here’s a clip of Clapton playing his 1960 Les Paul.

Jimmy Page

Page has used various Les Paul models, including from 1959 and 1973. He also owned a modified 1960 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty,” which was stolen in 1970 and has never been found. Gibson has produced three Jimmy Page signature models. In this clip from Led Zeppelin’s live performance of We’re Gonna Groove at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1970, Page can be seen using a Les Paul.

Slash

Slash has used many different Les Paul models including his own custom shop Les Paul. Altogether, he has collaborated with Gibson on eight signature models. Here’s a clip of a 1988 Guns N’ Roses’ live performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine, featuring Slash on a Les Paul.

Joe Perry

The Aerosmith lead guitarist has used many Gibson guitar models, including various Les Pauls. Gibson has released two Joe Perry signature Les Pauls, the first in 1996, the second in 2004. The latter is known as the Boneyard Les Paul. In the following clip of a live performance of Toys In the Attic, Perry is playing the Boneyard.

Gary Moore

Moore played a Les Paul Standard. There were also two Gibson Gary Moore signature Les Pauls. Here’s the blues rocker and his Les Paul in action live with Walking By Myself.

Pete Townshend

Among other Gibson models, The Who guitarist used various customized Les Pauls from 1973 to 1979. In 2005, Gibson introduced three Townshend signature Les Paul Deluxe guitars, based on his heavily customized “#1” Wine Red 1976 Les Paul Deluxe, “#3” Gold top 1976, and “#9” Cherry Sunburst 1976. Here is a great clip of a 1978 live performance of Won’t Get Fooled Again, in which Townshend plays one of his customized Les Pauls. Based on the date, this must have been one of the last performances of Keith Moon, who died in September that year.

Of course, this post would not be complete without a clip of the maestro himself, Les Paul. Not only does it show Paul perform one of his biggest hit singles, How High the Moon (1951), but he also demonstrates one of his inventions called “Les Paulverizer.” According to Wikipedia, the little device attached to his guitar allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performance so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage.

Sources: Wikipedia, Premier Guitar, YouTube