Well, If You Ever Plan To Motor West…

Just take my way, it’s the highway, it’s the best…

Get your kicks on Route 66. These lines of course are the beginning of the opening verse from the well-known R&B standard composed by American songwriter Bobby Troup in 1946. Frequent readers of the blog may notice it’s not the first time I write about this tune. So what’s going on here?

To me Route 66 simply is one of the best car songs I know, along with Highway Star, Born To Be Wild (wait, isn’t that from a famous picture about bikers?) and Radar Love, to name a few others. And, yes, I also enjoy driving and believe a road trip is the best way to explore the U.S., even though it sounds so 20th century! Heck, most of the music I like is from that period as well, so I guess I’m living in the wrong century!

Now that my slight obsession with Route 66 and car travel is out of the way, I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist of different versions of the song. The tune has been covered by numerous artists over the decades. In fact, if I would look long enough, it might even be possible to find 66 versions. While perhaps that may be clever, it would be a bit of overkill, even for a Route 66 fan like me. Therefore, I’d like to keep this post to six versions.

Let’s kick things off from the beginning with the first recording of the tune by the King Cole Trio. BTW, the song’s full title is (Get Your Kicks) On Route 66. This first recorded version was released in 1946, some 72 years ago! I love that jazz groove and how relaxed the musicians are playing in this clip. It shows that great music stands the test of time.

Next up is the excellent cover by Chuck Berry. He included it on his fifth studio LP from March 1961 New Juke Box Hits. Unlike many of his other tunes he had released before then, it didn’t become a hit. Neither did the record, which came out while Berry was in legal trouble that led to 1.5 years of incarceration starting in 1962 – not good for PR!

Perhaps one of the best known covers is the version by The Rolling Stones, which appears on both their 1964 UK and US debut records The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers), respectively. Instead, I’m highlighting the 1965 cover by Them from that band’s debut The Angry Young Them. I like this take even better than the Stones, and I say this as a Stones fan. The musicians are giving a killer performance here, including great piano and guitar solos, while Van Morrison’s voice is a bit reminiscent of Mick Jagger. They don’t call him Van the Man for nothing!

Another cool hard-charging cover of Route 66 is by British pub rockers Dr. Feelgood. They included the tune on their 1975 debut Down By The Jetty. I’d go see these guys in a bar!

And how about a largely a cappella version by The Manhattan Transfer? If I see it correctly, the jazz vocal group first recorded Route 66 for their eighth studio album Bop Doo-Wopp, released in 1984. The clip below apparently was captured during a 2008 live performance. There is just something special about a vocal band, particularly if they can sing like these guys!

The last Route 66 cover I’m including here is another nice jazzy version by an unexpected artist: Glenn Frey. I also like the touch of country created by the pedal steel guitar. This version appears on Frey’s final studio album After Hours from May 2012, a collection of tunes from the Great American Songbook. It proves what a versatile artist Frey was. Here’s the official video – makes me want to snip my fingers right along with the groove.

While I understand there is very little left of the Mother Road, one of these years, I’d like to take that California trip from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way – according to Wikipedia, the original Route 66 covered a total of 2,448 miles. Maybe something for my 66th birthday? Okay, I guess I’m starting to overthink it now!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Tom Dowd, Humble Music Genius Behind The Scenes

Recording engineer and producer shaped sound of some of greatest music recorded during second half of 20th century

This post was inspired by Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, one of the most fascinating music documentaries I recently watched. Before getting to it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Music Enthusiast who recommended the film to me.

Created by Mark Moormann, the documentary, which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was a 2005 Grammy Award nominee, tells the fascinating story of Tom Dowd, a recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. Over a 50-plus-year career that started in the 1940s, this man worked with an amazing array of artists, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.sEric Clapton, Cream, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on and on. During that period, Dowd also advanced studio techniques that would revolutionize recording.

Tom Dowd and Ray Charles
Tom Dowd with Ray Charles

Dowd was born on October 20, 1925 in New York City. From the beginning of his life, he was exposed to music. His mother was an opera singer, while his dad worked as a concertmaster. While growing up, Dowd learned various instruments, including the piano, tuba, violin and string bass. After high school, he continued his musical education at City College of New York. During that time, Dowd also played in a band at Columbia University and became a conductor. Undoubtedly, all of this contributed to his great ear for music, which would come in handy for his later professional work in music.

Interestingly, Dowd’s path could have been very different. At 18, he was drafted into the military and through his work at the physics laboratory at Columbia University became involved in the Manhattan Project – yep that project, which developed the atomic bomb! Dowd planned to become a nuclear physicist after finishing his assignment. There was only one problem: His secret research for the military had been much more advanced than the university’s curriculum. So he decided against pursuing studies in nuclear physics and instead got a job at a classical recording studio in New York, before starting his longtime career with Atlantic Records.

Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler
Tom Dowd (left) with Jerry Wexler

In addition to helping shape the sound of some of the most amazing music recorded during the second half of the 20th century, Dowd was instrumental to drive innovation in the studio. He convinced Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records, to install an Ampex eight-track recorder, putting the company on the cutting edge in recording technology. Dowd also popularized stereophonic sound and pioneered the use of linear channel faders on audio mixers as opposed to rotary controls. He then became a master in operating the linear channel faders, almost as if he was playing a keyboard!

Initially, various of the musicians were skeptical or even hostile when they saw Dowd. During the documentary, Eric Clapton said, “To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t interested in people like that.” Pretty much along the same lines, Gregg Allman noted, “Suddenly, you get to the studio, and there is a new guy there critiquing all this stuff, and you think, ‘where did he come from?'”

But when they realized what kind of artists Dowd had recorded in the past, how much he knew about music (likely, more than they did all combined!), and what he could do at the mixer, they listened. Heck, Dowd even managed to suggest to Ginger Baker, who undoubtedly is one of the best rock drummers but not exactly a warm fellow, the drum groove for Sunshine Of Your Love! The fact that all these musicians put their big egos aside and listened to this gentle recording engineer is truly remarkable.

Tom Dowd and Duane Allman
Tom Dowd (second from left) and Duane Allman working on final master mix-down of Layla

Dowd passed away from emphysema at the age of 77 on October 27, 2007 in Florida, shortly after the above documentary had been finished. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – better late than never, I suppose! One can only speculate what would have happened to Layla by Derek and The Dominos, Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream and so many other great recordings Dowd impacted!

Following are two video clips. First up is the trailer to the documentary, which in addition to Dowd includes commentary from Ray Charles, Clapton, Allman and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Listening to the beginning of the clip when Charles is taking about the importance of sound is priceless in and of itself. I also recommend watching the remainder and hear all the other people talk about Dowd. It becomes obvious how much they revered him!

Here is how Dowd summarizes his amazing experience with artists from the ’50’s to the ’80s and the evolution of recording technology. I just find it fascinating and could listen to the man for hours!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dowd was his modesty. In the documentary, there is a scene where he notes that while he had worked with all these artists, he wasn’t a millionaire – far from it! Obviously, many albums these artists released became big-time sellers. But apparently, money didn’t matter to Dowd. Instead, it was all about the music. I think his following statement sums it up perfectly: “Music has been very kind to me over the years.” Boy, the music industry could need visionsaries like Tom Dowd these days!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music (Documentary, Mark Moorman, 2003), YouTube

My Playlist: Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was one of the greatest soul and R&B artists, in my opinion. He became first known in the ’60s as part of the Motown sound. Gaye performed some of the Detroit record company’s biggest hits during that period, such as Pride And Joy, I’ll Be Doggone and I Heard It Through The Grapevine.

Starting from the early ’70s, Gaye started producing or co-producing his albums and, together with Stevie Wonder, became one of the first Motown stars to emancipate themselves artistically from the company. Among his ’70s releases were two concept albums, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.

In March 1982, Gaye left Motown and signed with CBS Records. In October that year, he released Midnight Love, his last studio record to appear prior his death. It included  Sexual Healing, which became one of his biggest hits, for which he won two Grammy Awards in 1983. On April 1, 1984, Gaye was shot to death by his father Marvin Gaye Sr. after a physical fight between the two men. He was only 44 years old.

Let’s Get It On with some music of Gaye’s great music.

Stubborn Kind Of Fellow was among the first Motown tunes I heard and remains one of my favorites. The song was co-written by Gaye, producer William “Mickey” Stevenson and George Gordy, the brother of Motown founder Barry Gordy. It was included on Gaye’s second studio album That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow from December 1962 and became his first hit single, reaching the top 10 of the Billboard R&B Chart.

In addition to solo releases, Gaye also recorded various duet albums. One was Take Two with Kim Weston, which appeared in August 1966. I’ve always liked the upbeat opener of that record It Takes Two, a co-write by Stevenson and Sylvia Moy.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is from another duet record, United, with Tammi Terrrell, released in August 1967. The tune, which was co-written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Charts. In 1970, the track topped the Billboard Hot 100 when Diana Ross released it,  giving the former Supremes front woman her first no. 1 solo hit.

Another Gaye ’60s classic is I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the title track of his eighth studio album from August 1968, which originally was titled In The Groove. Co-written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the tune had first been released by Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967. The above extended live performance looks like it was captured during the ’70s.

If I would have to choose only one tune from Gaye, it would probably be What’s Going On. The singing is just off the charts! Co-written by him, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland, this gem is the title track of Gaye’s 11th studio release from May 1971. The concept album was the first record he produced.

Let’s Get It On, the title track of Gaye’s 13th studio album from August 1973, is another of his ’70s classics. He wrote it together with the record’s co-producer Ed Townsend. It became Gaye’s most successful single for Motown, topping both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot R&B charts. The above clip is an extended version from a 1981 show in The Netherlands. It nicely illustrates what a passionate performer Gaye was.

A great party song with a cool funky groove, Got To Give It Up is included on Live At The London Palladium, a double album Gaye released in March 1977. The tune was written by Art Stewart, who also produced the record.

The last song I want to highlight in this post is Sexual Healing, Gaye’s first single after he had left Motown. Co-written by him, Odell Brown and David Ritz, the sensual tune with a smooth groove is from Midnight Love, Gaye’s final studio album from October 1982. Above is the track’s official video clip. Sexual Healing topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and climbed to no. 3 on the Hot 100. It is also on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time at no. 233.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

Muddy Magnolias is one of the most exciting acts I came across last year when I read about them in Rolling Stone. I was reminded of this powerful urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo when listening to Memphis soul and blues act Southern Avenue, which I’ve done quite extensively over the past few days. I’m not saying the two sound the same, but there are some similarities.

Broken People is the title track from Muddy Magnolias’ excellent full-length debut album, which was released on Third Generation Records in October last year. It was produced by Rick Beato, with support from Mario Marchetti and Butch Walker, and recorded in Atlanta and Nashville in late spring 2016. Last Friday, the album’s latest single Shine On! appeared.

Muddy Magnolias was formed in Nashville in 2014 by two singer-songwriters: Brooklyn, New York native Jessy Wilson, who has an R&B background and is a protegee of John Legend, and Kallie North, who grew up in West Texas, listening to country and folk music. After their performance at CMA Music Festival in August that year, Rolling Stone called them the best unsigned duo, comparing their blend of styles to The Rolling Stones inhabiting Indigo Girls. Looking forward to more music from this act.

Sources: Wikipedia, Muddy Magnolias web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube