On This Day in Rock & Roll History: December 30

Before this year and decade are finally over, I thought why not throw in another installment of this recurring feature. For first-time visitors, the idea of these posts is simple: Look what happened on a specific date in rock throughout the decades. Admittedly, it’s a rather arbitrary way to cover music history. Moreover, these posts reflect events I find interesting and are not supposed to be comprehensive summaries. Usually, the selections are heavily focused on the ’60s and ’70s, which generally are my favorite music decades. This time, I’m also throwing in two birthdays. With that being said, let’s get to it!

1928: Ellas McDaniel (born Ellas Otha Bates), the American artist who became known as Bo Diddley, was born in the tiny city of McComb, Miss. When he was six years old, the McDaniel family who had adopted him from his mother, moved to Chicago, where the boy studied the trombone and the violin before taking up the guitar. Initially, he played on street corners with friends. By 1951, he had secured a regular gig at Chicago South Side’s 708 Club. In April 1955, then already known as Bo Diddley, he released his namesake tune featuring his signature Bo Diddley beat. Diddley, who passed away on June 2, 2008, influenced many artists, such as early rock & rollers Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, as well as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Here’s Bo Diddley, his only tune to top the Billboard Hot R&B chart.

1947: Jeffrey (Jeff) Lynne was born in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington, England. Jeff got his first (acoustic) guitar as a child from his father Philip Lynne. In 1963, he formed his first band, The Rockin’ Hellcats – that’s when bands still had fun names! Three years later, Jeff joined Birmingham rock group The Idle Race as lead guitarist, keyboarder and vocalist, and played on their first two albums. While the band developed a cult following, it did not achieve commercial success. In 1970, Lynne’s friend Roy Wood invited him to join The Move, the band that eventually morphed into Electric Light Orchestra. After a successful run that lasted 11 albums and 15 years, ELO disbanded in 1986. In 2000, Lynne revived ELO, but until 2013, they mostly released re-issues and played occasional mini-reunions. Since 2014, the band essentially has been a Jeff Lynne project billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO and released two albums. Lynne also was a co-founder of Traveling Wilburys. In addition to producing for “his” bands, Lynne produced for many other artists, such as Dave Edmunds, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh. Here’s Livin’ Thing from ELO’s sixth studio album A New World Record, released in July 1976. Like most ELO tunes, the song was written by Lynne who turned 72 years today. Happy birthday!

1967: For the 15th time, The Beatles stood at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, this time with Hello, Goodbye. Written by Paul McCartney, the tune was released as a non-album single in November 1967, backed by I’m The Walrus. According to Songfacts, John Lennon wasn’t fond of the tune, calling it “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions.” Apparently, he was also mad that his song I’m The Walrus was relegated to the B-side. While Hello, Goodbye has nice harmony singing and a cool bassline, I have to say I’m with Lennon here. The lyrics are silly and the much stronger I’m The Walrus would have deserved to be an A-side release.

1973: Jim Croce topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Time In A Bottle, his second and last no. 1 hit. Sadly, he didn’t get a chance to witness this milestone. On September 20, 1973, Croce was killed in a plane crash during a tour while taking off from Natchitoches, La.  He was en route to Sherman, Texas for his next scheduled gig at Austin College. All of the other five people who were on board of the chartered Beechcraft E18S died as well. Time In A Bottle was the third single off Croce’s third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, which had come out in April 1972. The poetic love song is a timeless gem!

1974: Bob Dylan recorded the take of Tangled Up In Blue that ended up on his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks while visiting his brother David for the holidays in Minnesota. Written in the summer of 1974, the tune deals with personal matters Dylan was going through at the time, including his failing marriage to his first wife Sara Dylan (born Shirley Marlin Noznisky). Dylan had first recorded the song with producer Phil Ramone in New York but not released it. During the session that generated the album version, Dylan asked Kevin Odegard, a local singer and guitarist who had been brought in to support the recording, what he thought about the song. Odegard suggested changing the key from G and A. Dylan gave it a try and apparently was satisfied with the outcome. Odegard never received any credit on the record but graciously said the experience was instrumental in launching his own successful music career.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts; This Day In Rock; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Elvis Presley/Santa Claus Is Back In Town

When I recently wrote about the formidable songwriting partnership of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, I had come across this song they wrote for Elvis Presley. While I selected what I feel is the much better Jailhouse Rock for that post, Santa Claus Is Back In Town isn’t a shabby rock & roll Christmas tune. Plus, it obviously fits the occasion.

Presley recorded it in September 1957 as the opener for Elvis’ Christmas Album. According to Wikipedia, that record is America’s and the world’s best-selling Christmas/holiday album of all time. Including its various reissues, it has sold at least 17 million copies in the U.S. and more than 20 million worldwide.

Leiber and Stoller also produced the track. In addition to Elvis on lead vocals, it features his core backing musicians at the time, Scotty Moore (guitar), Bill Black (bass) and D.J. Fontana (drums), jazz musician Dudley Brooks on piano, as well as The Jordanaires, his frequent backing vocals group. The tune was also released separately as a single that appeared together with the album on October 15 that year.

Happy Holidays!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

 

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Southern Avenue Keep On Delivering Distinct Blend of Powerful Soul, Blues And R&B On New Album

Southern Avenue perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better title for their sophomore album. Released yesterday, Keep On continues to effectively draw from different musical backgrounds of the band’s members. Southern Avenue skillfully blend Stax-style soul with blues, R&B, gospel, funk and rock. The result is powerful music combining familiar with new influences and a sound that has noticeably matured and become more distinct since the band’s eponymous debut from February 2017.

The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn. has been on my radar screen since I listened to the first album about two years ago. I also witnessed what a great live act Southern Avenue are when I saw them in New York City last August. At the time, I briefly chatted with guitarist Ori Naftaly, who mentioned their new album. My anticipation grew further with the release of the lead single Whiskey Love in early April, followed by the appearance of the second single Savior.

For brief background, Southern Avenue were founded in 2015 when Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly met Memphis vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson, drummer and backing vocalist. Jeremy Powell on keyboards rounds out the band’s core line-up. Bassist Gage Markey has been a touring member for the past couple of years and also plays on the new record. Southern Avenue took their name from a street that runs from East Memphis to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records. While that’s a clear nod to the band’s admiration for the legendary soul label, they are not a Stax revival act.

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierini Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

Keep On features some impressive guests. In this context, I first would like to mention the great horn section comprised of saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpet player Mark Franklin. They are an important factor for the above noted more mature sound. Edmaiston has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, while Franklin  has supported sessions for the likes of Aretha FranklinB.B. KingSolomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Another prominent guest is William Bell, who is perhaps best known for co-writing Born Under a Bad Sign with Booker T. Jones. The tune was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 and popularized by Cream the following year.

Alright, I think it’s time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. Co-written by Ori Naftaly, Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black, the tune is a nice example of how Southern Avenue blend different genres. Naftaly clearly is a blues guitarist at heart and I can hear some Cream in his cool riff. The horns add a dose of soul while Jackson’s strong vocals throw in some R&B.

Since I previously wrote about the first two singles Whiskey Love and Savior, I’m skipping these great tracks here and jump to the nice funky Switchup. Like the title track, the song is co-credited to Naftaly, Jackson and Black.

Next up: Lucky. Co-written by Naftaly and Jackson, this song has a beautiful retro Stax vibe to it. But, as if to emphasize that Southern Avenue don’t want to be a retro Memphis soul band, Naftaly throws in a fairly rock-oriented guitar solo.

Another great number is Jive, a co-write by Naftaly, Black and both Jackson sisters. I dig the tune’s driving beat, which makes you want to get up and dance. The horns and the backing vocals set great accents.

On the upbeat We’ve Got The MusicWilliam Bell joins Tierini Jackson on vocals. Bell also shares writing credits with Naftaly and her. I like the song’s message about the power of music and how it can bridge differences among people: If you don’t look like me/If you don’t talk like me, that’s alright/We’ve got the music/If you don’t know my face/But you’re feeling the sound, it’s okay/We’ve got the music…

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer We’re Gonna Make It. I think music publication No Depression nicely described the tune in their review of Keep On. “This gospel-inflected song opens with a nod to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and builds a message of love, persistence, and encouragement layer-by-layer. The song takes up where the Staple Singers left off, carrying the torch of hope in a world of darkness and giving us a new anthem for these times.”

“Making this album was an interesting journey,” Ori explained. “Our first album was recorded very fast and released very fast. With this one, we spent a long time planning, and we knew how we wanted it sound. For me, it’s a big progression from the first album.” Added Tierini: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

One of the cool things about Keep On is that the album was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording. The studio was opened in Memphis in 1960 by no one other than legendary Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips, who worked with artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. Wow, one can only imagine what it must have felt like for this young band to record in that studio – the thought of it gives me goosebumps!

Southern Avenue In Concert

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” stated producer Johnny Black. “Even in their selection of studios; by picking Sam Phillips Recording, the band, in essence, forced themselves to record within the same parameters as some of their heroes. And while that process may have taken extra time, it was well worth the effort.” In my humble opinion, I think Black is spot on.

Southern Avenue currently is where they seem to be most of the time – on the road. Their tour schedule is packed between now and mid-November and mostly includes U.S. dates. From late May to mid-June, the band is also playing a series of shows in Europe. I have no doubt Southern Avenue will keep on wowing audiences with their performances that are passionate, authentic and humble at the same time. As a communications professional, I also have to commend the band for their effective use of Facebook to build their fan base. I’m planning to catch them again on July 11 during Jams on the Sand, a free outdoor event in Asbury Park, N.J.

Sources: Wikipedia, Southern Avenue website, William Bell website, No Depression, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: May 5

This is the 40th installment of my recurring feature on rock music history. While I generally enjoy doing research for the posts and seeing what comes up for a specific date, sometimes it feels I already must have covered most dates of the year. But this little milestone means I still have more than 300 other potential installments left! 🙂

Without further ado, let’s take a look at May 5:

1956: Elvis Presley for the first time topped the Billboard Hot 100, with Heartbreak Hotel, which also became his first million-selling single. It’s one of my all-time favorite tunes by Elvis who interestingly received a credit for singing it. Nashville steel guitarist  Tommy Durden wrote the lyrics. They were inspired by a newspaper article about a man who ended his life by jumping out of a hotel window, leaving a note behind that said, “I walk a lonely street.” The music was composed by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton. Heartbreak Hotel is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In my opinion, the track is perhaps the coolest Elvis song. It has also been covered by Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and other artists, and is included in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

1966: Manfred Mann reached the top of the British charts with Pretty Flamingo. Written by American songwriter and record producer Mark Barkan, the song became the band’s second no. 1 in the U.K. after Do Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964. The tune fared less well in the U.S., where it peaked at no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August – still not too shabby! The recording of Pretty Flamingo featured Jack Bruce, who briefly became a member of Manfred Mann before co-founding Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in July 1966. Bruce was replaced by another prominent artist: German musician, record producer and graphic artist Klaus Voormann, who remained the band’s bassist until 1969.

1967: The Kinks released Waterloo Sunset, the lead single to their fifth British studio album Something Else by The Kinks, which appeared in September that year. Written by Ray Davies, it reached no. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart, marking the band’s 10th Top 10 single. According to Songfacts, Davies called the tune “a romantic, lyrical song about my older sister’s generation.” Widely considered as one of The Kinks’ most acclaimed tunes, notably, the single did not chart in the U.S. It is ranked at no. 42 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list from 2004.

1969: The Beatles released Get Back in the U.S. Notably, their first single of 1969 was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time such credit appeared on any release by the band. The U.S. single came out nearly a month after it had appeared in Britain. According to The Beatles Bible, this “may have been due to a last-minute remix ordered by Paul McCartney on 7 April 1969, four days before the official U.K. release date.” The delay didn’t hurt the single’s performance in America where it topped the Billboard Hot 100, just as it did in the U.K. Canada, Australia and many other countries.

1973: David Bowie started a five-week run for Aladdin Sane on the Official Albums Chart in the U.K. Bowie’s sixth studio album, which was the follow-up to breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, became his first of six records to top that chart. With Ziggy Stardust being my favorite Bowie album I may be biased here, but I’m actually somewhat in disbelief that it was outperformed by Aladdin Sane. Well, I suppose Rolling Stone seems to agree with me that Ziggy Stardust is the better record: While both albums are included in their 2003 version of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Ziggy Stardust is at no. 35, while Aladdin Sane is ranked at no. 277. Without meaning to get too much carried away with chart positions, Bowie’s next two albums following Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups (October 1973) and Diamond Dogs (May 1974), also hit no. 1 in Britain. I can’t imagine there are many other artists with three no. 1 albums in a row. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are among them. One final fun fact: According to This Day In Music, Aladdin Sane is a pun on “A Lad Insane.” That definitely deserves extra points for creativity! Here’s the insane lead single The Jean Genie.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, Songfacts, The Beatles Bible, YouTube