The Blues Comes Alive…Live – Part I

For people who have frequently visited this blog or know me otherwise, this won’t come as a big surprise: I love the blues and blues rock. I also feel it’s a type of music that’s perfect to be experienced live. I was reminded of this on Saturday when thanks to fellow blogger Mike from Ticket 2 Ride I listened to Layla Revisited (Live at LOCKN’).

This cool live album by Tedeschi Trucks Band, released back in July, celebrates Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the sole 1970 studio album by Derek and the Dominos. And just like blues musicians often feed off one another, I let this inspire me and decided to come up with a post of great live blues and blues rock performances. I’m going to do this in two parts. Hope you dig this as much as I do!

B.B. King/The Thrill Is Gone

Let’s kick off part I with the king of electric guitar blues, the amazing B.B. King. He demonstrated that it’s not about speed and how many notes you play, it’s what you play. And when it comes to this man, he made every note count he played on his beloved “Lucille”. Check out this cool rendition of The Thrill Is Gone, captured in Chicago at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. Written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell and first recorded by Hawkins in 1951, The Thrill Is Gone became a major hit for King in 1969 and I would argue his signature song. King is joined by many of the musicians he influenced, including Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan, among others. Check it out, this is just amazing!

John Lee Hooker/Boogie Chillen’

Recently, I watched the great documentary Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, in which Guy identified John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen’ as the first single he bought, and the song that got him hooked to the guitar and the blues! I’m thrilled I found this clip of Hooker performing the tune with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones in 1989 in Atlantic City, N.J. That’s what I call a cool backing band! Hooker wrote and first recorded the song in 1948. Clapton and the Stones, who are huge fans of American blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker and have done a lot to promote their music, especially in the U.S., clearly cherished the moment.

Muddy Waters/Rollin’ Stone

Speaking of Muddy Waters, here’s a great live performance of Rollin’ Stone, the very song that inspired the name of the “world’s greatest rock & roll band.” An interpretation of delta blues tune Catfish Blues, Waters recorded Rollin’ Stone in 1950. The clip shows his performance of the song at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. It’s the oldest footage features in this two-part post.

Cream/Crossroads

Cream possibly are my all-time favorite blues rock band. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker perfectionated the art of the power trio. Here’s a great clip of Crossroads performed by the band in March 1968 at the Fillmore Auditorium & Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Written by Robert Johnson who originally recorded it as Cross Road Blues in 1936, Crossroads (arranged by Clapton) appeared on Cream’s 1968 album Wheels of Fire. The live version on the record seems to be the same than the one that is captured in this clip.

Dani Wilde/Mississippi Kisses

Buddy Guy, who together with Taj Mahal is one of the last men standing of what I would call the old blues guard, often speaks about the need for young artists to come along to keep the blues alive when he will be gone. I’m actually pretty optimistic about this. Some great examples coming to mind include 22-year-old Christone “Kingfish” Ingram; 24-year-old Jontavious Willis who has been called “wunderkind” by none other than Mahal; or 44-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But guess what? There are also some dynamite female blues and blues rock artists out there like 36-year-old British singer-songwriter Dani Wilde. Ana Popović, Shemekia Copeland and Eliana Cargnelutti are among some of the others who come to mind. Here’s a 2015 performance by Wilde of Mississippi Kisses, a tune she wrote for her 2012 album Juice Me Up.

J. Geils Band/First I Look at the Purse

A post about great live renditions of blues rock tunes would be amiss without the ultimate party group, the J. Geils Band, don’t you agree? I think it’s also a perfect way to wrap up part I. Here’s a cool clip taken from what looks like a 1979 appearance of the band on the German music TV program Rockpalast. One of my all-time favorites by the J. Geils Band is their high energy rendition of First I Look at the Purse. It’s the main part of this encore medley, which starts at around 4 minutes into the clip. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the song was first released by Motown R&B group The Contours in 1965. J Geils Band recorded their cover of the tune for their eponymous debut album from November 1970, but it’s really their live rendition that brings out the song’s true magic. When watching this, don’t you feel like dropping anything you’re doing right now and going to a fuckin’ rock & roll show? What a killer performance by a killer live band!

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Turns 50

Seminal album transformed Motown’s most successful artist to a social observer

Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

Father, father/We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today

It’s incredible to realize these music lyrics that could have come out today instead appeared exactly 50 years ago on May 21, 1971 when Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On. Earlier this month, I was reminded of this seminal studio album when I caught the CNN documentary What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages. With Gaye being one of my all-time favorite soul vocalists, it wasn’t a difficult decision to dedicate a post to the 50th anniversary of this remarkable record.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

The following lightly edited background on What’s Going On comes from a previous post I published about the album in April 2017. I thought it’s a perfect fit for this 50-year anniversary commemoration.

In the spring of 1970, Marvin Gaye found himself in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High EnoughYour Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The lyrics had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the catalyst Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” As a business man, he was concerned a song with such political lyrics would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released as as single without Gordy’s knowledge – a gutsy move!

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further encouragement and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot his own son Marvin Gaye to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984 with a gun Marvin had previously given to him for protection.

Time for some music! And what better tune to start than the album’s marvelous title track. The tune ended up being credited to Benson, Gaye and Al Cleveland. The Originals provided backing vocals along with Gaye. Gaye also played piano and box drum. The remaining instrumentation was provided by Motown session musicians The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Save the Children is a haunting track about the failure of current generations to preserve the world for their children. The song was co-written by Cleveland, Gaye and Renaldo Benson. Motown female session group The Andantes sang backing vocals, with instrumentation provided by The Funk Brothers. An excerpt of the lyrics:…When I look at the world/(When I look at the world)/Oh, it fills me with sorrow/(It fills me with sorrow)/Little children today/(Children today)/Really gonna suffer tomorrow/(Really suffer tomorrow)…

Next up: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), the album’s only track that Gaye wrote all by himself. Apart from singing lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano and Mellotron. The Andantes and The Funk Brothers were also featured in this tune. I had not realized what an accomplished musician Gaye was and that he started out as a session drummer. In the CNN documentary, Smokey Robinson noted Gaye backed The Miracles on drums. …Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north and south and east…

Let’s do one more track: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the album’s powerful closer. The song about the bleak situation in certain inner cities in America was co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr. In addition to lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano. The distinct bongos were provided by percussionist Bobbye Jean Hall. Once again, the tune also featured The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Check out this lyrical excerpt, which sounds like it could be from a present day song about Black Lives Matter: …Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading/Oh, make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…

Despite the charged topics it addresses, What’s Going On doesn’t come across as rabble-rousing or preachy. Undoubtedly, much of it has to do with Gaye’s soft and beautiful vocals. I think this quote from Sheila E., which was taken from the CNN film and included in this accompanying story, sums it up nicely: “His melodies were like a voice of cry…(He) talked about the ghetto, talked about injustice, talked about the war. But he wasn’t yelling and protesting.”

Somebody else in the CNN documentary made another observation I found interesting. What’s Going On sounded like a Motown production without following the traditional formula. During the ’60s and early ’70s, that formula generated the Motown sound and one hit after the other.

What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s first top 10 album on the Billboard 200. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the mainstream chart for almost one year. It also topped Billboard’s Top R&B Chart, then known as the Soul Chart. The album became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On.

What’s Going On was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the list’s most recent revision from September 2020, the album moved up all the way to no. 1 – a clear sign how relevant the lyrics remain in present-day America! In the UK, the record also topped the 1985 list of NME Writers All Time 100 Albums. What’s Going On was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

In January, Universal Music Enterprises released three new digital collections to commemorate the 50th anniversary, as reported by uDiscoverMusic: What’s Going On: Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary features the original album, plus 12 bonus tracks, including each of the LP’s original mono single versions and their B-sides. What’s Going On: The Detroit Mix is the album’s original mix, which Gaye cancelled at the last minute to have it redone in Los Angeles. The third release is Funky Nation: The Detroit Instrumentals, which includes 14 tracks Gaye recorded in the late summer and fall of 1971 after What’s Going On had come out.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On”, PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Variety; CNN; uDiscoverMusic; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s a gray and rainy Sunday morning in New Jersey, at least in my neck of the woods. But I’m determined not to let that bring me down. Plus, we’ve had plenty of sunshine over the past couple of weeks, so there’s no good reason to complain and every reason to expect the sun will come back. Most importantly, bad weather isn’t a deterrent to listen to great music. In fact, one could argue a rainy day is a perfect opportunity to do just that. And, guess what, I have some suggestions! 🙂

ShwizZ /Clock Tower

Let’s get into the mood with an amazing brand new rock instrumental by ShwizZ. I had never heard of the group until Friday when I spotted the below clip on Facebook. I’m not even sure how to properly pronounce that name! According to their website, ShwizZ is a one of a kind powerhouse from Nyack, New York. Drawing a substantial influence from classic progressive rock and funk, they consistently put their musical abilities to the test to deliver a high intensity and musically immersive show. ShwizZ call out Frank Zappa, Yes, P-Funk and King Crimson as their influences – notably, all artists I essentially don’t listen to, except for Yes. Still, Clock Tower grabbed me right away! The band’s members include Ryan Liatsis (guitar), Will Burgaletta (keyboards), Scott Hogan (bass) and Andrew Boxer (drums). I know Scott who is a very talented bassist. Frankly, when I see him play, sometimes, I ask myself ‘what’s the point’ of me trying. But while skill is great, at the end of the day, playing an instrument should be about fun first and foremost. Anyway, after I watched the video, I messaged Scott with a few inquisitive questions. I think he has no idea I’m writing about him – sneaky, huh? Anyway, he told me ShwizZ have been around for about 10 years. He joined them 1.5 years ago. Most of their music is instrumental. Their website lists a few albums and singles, including Clock Tower, which was released as a single on Friday, April 8. Apparently, they’re working on other new music. Meanwhile, let’s give this cool-sounding tune a listen!

Gerry Rafferty/Baker Street

From the very first moment I heard Baker Street by Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, I loved that tune. The saxophone part by Raphael Ravenscroft and the guitar solo by Hugh Burns still give me the chills. Rafferty wrote Baker Street for his second studio album City to City that came out in January 1978. The song was also released separately as a single and became Rafferty’s biggest hit, peaking at no. 2 and no. 3 in the U.S. and the UK, respectively, and charting within the top 10 in various other European countries. In Australia, it went all the way to no. 1. Rafferty had a complicated relationship with fame and the music industry, and unfortunately, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. On January 4, 2011, Rafferty passed away from liver failure at the untimely age of 63. Primarily fueled by Baker Street, City to City ended up to become his most successful album. Altogether, Rafferty released 10 albums during his solo recording career from 1971 to 2009. He also gained popularity as co-founder of Scottish folk rock band Stealers Wheel and their hit Stuck in the Middle with You.

Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

In December 2016, about seven months after I had started the blog, I named Muddy Magnolias “my new discovery for 2016 I’m most excited about.” Then the now-defunct duo of African American singer-songwriter Jesse Wilson from Brooklyn, New York, and Kallie North, a white pianist from Beaumont, TX, kind of fell off my radar screen until I remembered them out of the blue the other day. They got together in 2014 and released an amazing album titled Broken People in October 2016. The music represents an intriguing blend of each artist’s background. Wilson’s influences include Aretha FranklinSmokey RobinsonLauren HillMary J. Blige and The Notorious B.I.G., while North grew up listening to artists like The CarpentersAlison KraussJames Taylor and Eagles. Unfortunately, the duo dissolved at the end 0f 2017. Wilson went on by herself and released her debut solo album Phase in May 2019, which was produced by Patrick Carney, the drummer of The Black Keys. No idea what happened to North who apparently initiated the duo’s breakup. While Muddy Magnolias only released one album, they certainly made it count. Here’s the cool title track.

Tom Faulkner/Lost in the Land of Texico

A few weeks ago, my longtime music buddy from Germany recommended that I check out Tom Faulkner and his 1998 album Lost in the Land of Texico. Usually, he has a good idea what will appeal to me, and once again he was right! While the singer-songwriter and producer, who was born in New Orleans, already at the age of five knew music was his calling, unfortunately, it appears he never quite broke through as a music artist. To date, decades into his career, Faulkner has only released two albums: Lost in the Land of Texico (1997) and Raise the Roof (2002). For the most part, he has made his living with commercial music for radio and TV. As his bio on last.fm notes, Faulkner has created hundreds of national jingles and scores, including some of the most memorable commercial music on television and radio. Most notably, he composed and sang the wildly popular “I Want My Baby Back” for Chili’s, a jingle that has since found its way into motion pictures (Austin Powers) and over a dozen major network TV shows. He also created the multi-award winning music theme for Motel 6 and Tom Bodett, the longest running commercial campaign in the history of advertising (23 years, 5 CLIOs, and counting). As of June 2019, when his bio was last updated, Faulkner was working on his third CD. Here’s the bluesy title track, which has a nice musical New Orleans flavor.

The Subdudes/Light in Your Eyes

Let’s stay with New Orleans and The Subdudes, another great tip from my German music friend. This band from The Big Easy blends folk, swamp pop, New Orleans R&B, Louisiana blues, country, cajun, zydeco, funk, soul and gospel into a tasty musical gumbo. They have been around since 1987 with breaks from 1996-2002 and 2011-2014. The band’s current members include Tommy Malone (vocals, guitar), John Magnie (vocals, accordion, keyboards), Steve Amedée (tambourine, drums, other percussions, vocals), Tim Cook (percussion, bass, vocals) and Jimmy Messa (bass, guitar), which is almost still their original line-up. Since their eponymous debut from 1989, The Subdudes have released nine additional studio and two live albums. Light in Your Eyes is a track from the band’s first album. It was co-written by Malone and Johnny Ray Allen, the band’s former bassist. The Subdudes’ harmony singing and the warm sound of their music are sweet. Check it out!

Chicago/Free

As has sort of become a Sunday Six tradition, the last tune I’d like to highlight is a rocker: Free by Chicago. Formed as The Chicago Transit Authority in The Windy City in 1967, a name that after the threat of legal action from Chicago’s actual transit authority was shortened to Chicago, the band doesn’t need much of an introduction. They started out as a rock group with horns before moving to an easy listening sound that was dominated by ballads, especially in the late ’70s and ’80s. Over their nearly 55-year career, Chicago have seen numerous line-up changes, as you’d expect. Notably, the current 10-piece still includes original members Robert Lamm (keyboards, lead vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, flugelhorn, backing vocals) and James Pankow (trombone, backing vocals). Free dates back to a period when Chicago were rockin’ and on a true roll: Chicago III, the group’s third consecutive double album in less than two years. Written by Lamm, Free is part of the so-called Travel Suite of tunes that make up side 2 of the double LP. Featuring amazing lead guitarist Terry Kath on lead vocals, the tune also became the album’s lead single in February 1971. It’s hard for me to say and I’m sorry, while Chicago’s ’80s ballads were popular, it’s the rock & horns songs like Free where the band truly shines.

Sources: Wikipedia; ShwizZ website; last.fm; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Boy, have I been looking forward to this Sunday! While spring doesn’t officially start until March 20, to me, the switch from standard to daylight savings time here in New Jersey and most U.S. states marks the unofficial beginning. Oh, in case I just reminded you and you had forgotten to adjust your watches, you’re welcome! 🙂 Sunday is fun day, so if you’re like me and in the mood for some music, I’ll invite you to read on and check out the clips. I think I put together a nice and diverse set of tracks.

Neil Cowley/Berlin Nights

Let’s kick it off with some beautiful ambient music by English contemporary pianist and composer Neil Cowley. Cowley was born in London in November 1972. He began as a classical pianist and already at the age of 10 performed a Shostakovich piano concerto at Queen Elizabeth Hall. In his late teens, he played keyboards for various soul and funk acts I don’t know, including Mission Impossible, The Brand New Heavies, Gabrielle and Zero 7. It looks like his first album Displaced appeared in 2006 under the name of Neil Cowley Trio. He has since released 14 additional records as a band leader or co-leader. Cowley has also worked as a sideman for various other artists, most notably Adele. Berlin Nights, composed by Cowley, is from his new solo album Hall of Mirrors that appeared on March 5. I find it super relaxing and can literally see a city nightscape before my eyes while listening.

Randy Newman/Guilty

Randy Newman needs no introduction, though he certainly deserves more of my attention. Based on my relatively limited knowledge of his catalog, here is one of my favorites, Guilty, from his fourth studio album Good Old Boys released in September 1974. Written by Newman, the tune was first recorded by Bonnie Raitt for her third studio album Takin’ My Time from October 1973, an excellent cover!

Rosanne Cash/Good Intent

There is lots of talent in the Johnny CashJune Carter Cash family. This includes Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny and his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash Distin. Sadly, I’ve yet to explore Rosanne Cash who started her recording career in 1978 with her eponymous solo album and has since released 13 additional studio albums. Good Intent, co-written by Cash and her longtime collaborator John Leventhal, is included on her 12th studio album Black Cadillac from January 2006. I absolutely love the warm sound of that song and Cash’s vocals. This is a true gem!

The Byrds/Goin’ Back

The Byrds have written so many amazing songs. I also don’t get tired of Rickenbacker maestro Roger McGuinn and his jingle-jangle guitar sound. While it’s perhaps not as well known as Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, I’ll Feel a Lot Better and Eight Miles High, Goin’ Back has become one of my absolute favorite tunes by The Byrds. It was wo-written by the songwriting powerhouse of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and is yet another reason why Carole King who is nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year should be inducted! Goin’ Back was first released by Dusty Springfield in July 1966, giving her a top 10 hit in the UK and Australia. The Byrds included their rendition on their fifth studio album The Notorious Byrd Brothers from January 1968. It was less successful, peaking at no. 89 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 and missing the charts in the UK altogether. Regardless, I think it’s a terrific tune with a beautiful atmosphere.

Kim Carnes/Mistaken Identity

Kim Carnes is best known for her cover of Bette Davis Eyes, her international smash hit from 1981. The American singer-songwriter’s recording career started 10 years earlier with her first release Rest on Me. More Love, a cover of a Smokey Robinson tune, brought Carnes her first successful U.S. single in 1980, hitting no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Bette Davis Eyes the following year became the biggest hit of her career. It was part of Carnes’ sixth studio album Mistaken Identity from April 1981. Here’s the title track written by Carnes. I’ve always dug her husky vocals. BTW, now 75 years old, she still appears to be active.

The Beatles/I Saw Her Standing There

This Sunday Six installment has been on the softer side, so as I’m wrapping up, it’s time to step on the gas with a great rock & roll song by my favorite band of all time: I Saw Her Standing There by The Beatles. Primarily written by Paul McCartney, but as usual credited to him and John Lennon, I Saw Her Standing There was the opener of The Beatles’ UK debut album Please Please Me that came out in March 1963. In December of the same year, Capitol Records released the tune in the U.S. as the B-side to I Want to Hold Your Hand, the label’s first single by The Beatles. Ready? One, two, three, four…

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube

It Was 35 Years Ago

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 3

The last part of this mini-series reviews highlights from the U.S. portion of Live Aid at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Things there got underway at close to 9:00 a.m. EDT (2:00 p.m. BST) on July 13, 1985. The British concert at London’s Wembley Stadium ended at 10 pm BST (5:00 pm EDT). As such, both shows overlapped by eight hours. Unfortunately, this meant viewers could not see all artist performances on their television broadcasts.

The Philly concert included reunions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne and The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson. It also featured a less than stellar appearance of Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who were joined by Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums.

With Page’s guitar out of tune and Plant’s hoarse voice, unfortunately, it was one of Zep’s poorest performances. Later, Page blamed the drumming of Collins who had played at Wembley earlier and traveled to the U.S. by supersonic jet, so he could perform in Philly as well – the only artist who pulled off that stunt. It seems to me the reality of the fiasco was a combination of factors, including lack of rehearsal, some technical challenges and probably a portion of bad luck.

While white artists were well represented at Live Aid, the same cannot be said for artists of color, especially at Wembley, where I believe only two performed: Sade and Brandon Marsalis – a bit of an oddity for a charity concert put on for the African nation of Ethiopia. The U.S. did better in this regard. The show line-up featured The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle, as well as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations. In addition, U.S.A. for Africa performed their charity single We Are the World, which included additional artists of color, such as Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte and Dionne Warwick.

Let’s kick off this last part with one of the above noted reunions: Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s Paranoid, the epic title track of the band’s sophomore album from September 1970. The music was credited to all members of Sabbath, while the lyrics were written by bassist Geezer Butler.

One of my favorite bands performing in Philly were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They closed their mini-set with Refugee, one of their best songs, in my opinion. Co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, the tune is from Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s third studio album released in October 1979. It also became the record’s second single that appeared in January 1980.

Neil Young is another of my all-time favorite artists. Here is Powderfinger, a beloved tune among Young fans. He first recorded the song for his live album Rust Never Sleeps from June 1979. It was also included on various other live albums he released thereafter.

As a fan of Cream, of course, I couldn’t skip Eric Clapton and his rendition of White Room. Composed by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, the classic tune was included on Wheels of Fire, Cream’s third studio album that appeared in August 1968.

The last clip I’d like to call out is a great medley of tunes by The Temptations performed by Hall & Oates, together with Eddie Kendricks und David Ruffin: Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and My Girl, which all first appeared as singles. Get Ready from February 1966 was penned by Smokey Robinson. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, co-written by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., came out in May 1966. And My Girl was first released in December 1964. Robinson and Ronald White wrote that tune together.

While you may not agree with Bob Geldof who in his introduction to Live Aid 35 said it was commonly called the ‘greatest concert of all time,’ I think there can be no doubt Live Aid was a one of a kind event. Sure, there were other historic concerts like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival that brought together many of the leading music artists at the time. One must also mention the Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit music event of significant magnitude. But none of these concerts came anywhere close to Live Aid in terms of audience reach and logistics – and in the case of the Concert for Bangladesh the scale of fundraising.

Sources: Wikipedia; 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

Multi-Part Harmonies And Seductive Grooves – The Magic Of The Temptations

When it comes to vocal groups, I can’t think of a more compelling example than The Temptations. Their perfect multi-part harmonies have impressed me from the very first moment I heard them sometime during my early teenage years. I was reminded of The Temptations’ mighty singing while listening to a Christmas playlist yesterday that includes their beautiful rendition of Silent Night. Since I’m a huge fan of great harmony vocals, I decided a tribute post was an order.

The story of The Temptations began in Detroit in 1960 when members of two other vocal bands formed a group called The Elgins: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin of Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams who came from a group called The Primes. Following an audition in March 1961, an impressed Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown imprint Miracle Records. However, there was one problem. The name Elgins was already taken by another band. According to Wikipedia, Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, Otis Williams and Paul Williams came up with the idea to call the group The Temptations.

In April 1961, the group released their debut single Oh, Mother of Mine. Co-written by Otis Williams and Mickey Stevenson, who also produced the track, the tune was not successful. Neither were the following seven singles The Temptations released. In January 1964, Al Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin, marking the start of “The Classic Five” era that would turn the group into superstars. In the meantime, Smokey Robinson had become their producer, and it was one of his tunes that became the group’s first no. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts: My Girl, released in December 1964. Every time I hear that song, I got sunshine, no matter how cloudy my day may be. By the way, that cool bass intro is played by the amazing James Jamerson. Feel free to snip and groove along!

While it would take The Temptations another four and a half years before scoring their second double no. 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, they released plenty of other hits in the meantime, many of which topped the Hot R&B Singles. Here’s one of my favorites: Get Ready, another tune written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I was going to feature an audio clip of the track but couldn’t resist using the below footage instead, which was captured during a TV appearance in 1966. The song appeared in February that year. Even though none of the singing and music are live, just watching the dance choreography of these guys and the female backing dancers is priceless!

And then the era of The Classic Five came to an end after success and fame apparently had gotten to David Ruffin’s head. His behavior led to friction with the other members of the group, and The Temptations ended up firing him on June 27, 1968. The very next day, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, a former member of The Contours. The new line-up became what some called the group’s “second classic line-up.” But more changes were in store.

Norman Whitfield took over as producer, and The Temptations started adopting a more edgy sound, influenced by contemporaries like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic. The group’s four-year psychedelic soul period kicked off with their ninth studio album Cloud Nine from February 1969. The record climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and brought the group their first Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Here’s Run Away Child, Running Wild, a co-write by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. A shorter version of the tune was also released separately as a single and became another no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here’s the full album version. That’s one hell of a hot funky tune!

Even though The Temptations had come a long way from their oftentimes romantic songs that marked their early years, the group did not entirely abandon sweet ballads. Here’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion, released in January 1971: Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). Evidently, the public liked it as well. The song became the group’s third and last to top both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Interestingly, it was written by the same guys who penned Runaway Child, Running Wild. Perhaps appropriately, the track also appeared on an album called Sky’s The Limit. Damn, these guys could harmonize – it’s pure perfection and actually no imagination!

Writing about The Temptations’ psychedelic soul era wouldn’t be complete without including another epic tune: Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett gem. Initially, it was recorded and released as a single in May 1972 by another Motown act called The Undisputed Truth – something I had not known until I did some research for this post. While their original is pretty cool, I still prefer The Temptations’ version. Interestingly, it hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but “only” peaked at no. 5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here it is in its full 12-minute glory!

By the time of the release of 1990 in December 1973, The Temptations had become tired of psychedelic soul and wanted to move back to their more upbeat style and lyrics of the ’60s. The album turned out to be the final record produced by Whitfield. January 1975 saw the release of the group’s next studio album A Song For You. Wikipedia lists a hodge-podge of producers, including Berry Gordy, Jeffrey Bowen, James Anthony Carmichael, Suzy Wendy Ikeda, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. The record was the group’s last to top the Billboard Hot R&B LPs chart. It also featured their two last no. 1 singles on the Hot R&B Singles chart, Happy People and Shakey Ground. Here’s the latter, a nice groovy tune co-written by Jeffrey Bowen, Alphonso Boyd and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who also played lead guitar on the track.

Following A Song For You, success dried up. After the release of The Temptations Do The Temptations in August 1976, the group left Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. That didn’t change their trajectory, and after two albums, they returned to Motown in 1980. Two years later, they reunited with co-founder Eddie Kendricks and “Classic Five” era member David Ruffin for a tour, during which they recorded a studio album appropriately titled Reunion. Released in April 1982, the record marked a comeback of sorts, peaking at no. 2 on the Hot R&B LPs and a respectable no. 37 on the Billboard 200. Here’s opener Standing On The Top, a funk tune written and produced by Rick James, who also contributed vocals and clavinet.

While success has largely eluded them since Reunion, The Temptations have released 17 additional studio albums. The most recent, All The Time, appeared in 2018. Here’s Stay With Me, a cover of the beautiful pop soul tune by English songwriter and vocalist Sam Smith. In fact, when I heard this version for the first time, I thought it was Smith together with The Temptations, but apparently it’s not. The tune is credited to Smith, James Napier and William Phillips, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, following a legal settlement. After the song’s release, Petty’s published had noticed a similarity to I Won’t Back Down and reached out to Smith’s team.

Altogether, The Temptations have had an impressive 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B LPs, including eight in a row between March 1965 and February 1969 – I suspect this must be a record. The group also scored 14 no. 1 hits on the Hot R&B Singles chart and topped the Hot 100 chart four times. In 1989, The Temptations (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has ranked them at no. 68 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Temptations are active to this day, with Otis Williams remaining as the only original founding member. The other current line-up includes Ron Tyson (since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and Willie Green (since 2016). Next year, the group will embark on a tour through the U.S., U.K. and Germany to celebrate their 60th anniversary. This includes two dates in May in my area. My wife and I saw The Temptations once in the early 2000s at The Apollo in New York City, together with The Four Tops. We both remember it as a great show, so we’re thinking to catch them again. The current tour schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Temptations website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials/Full Tilt

Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperialsgood golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball, to borrow a famous line from Richard Wayne Penniman, the dynamite rock & roll artist known as Little Richard! I don’t believe I had heard from Chicago blues slide guitarist Lil’ Ed Williams and his backing band until this morning, when my music streaming provider served up their eighth studio album Full Tilt as a listening suggestion. Released in August 2008, this record is nothing short but an invitation to party, and I couldn’t help to start grooving behind the wheel of my car. Did I mention I’m a passionate dashboard drummer? 🙂

Here are some excerpts from the band’s official bio: In Chicago, a city overflowing with unrivaled blues talent, world-renowned Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials have been standing tall for over 30 years. The band’s big sound, fueled by Lil’ Ed’s gloriously rollicking slide work and deep blues string bending, along with his rough-edged, soulful vocals, is as real and hard-hitting as Chicago blues gets…

…Lil’ Ed Williams comes to the blues naturally. His uncle, Chicago slide guitar king and master songwriter J.B. Hutto, taught him how to feel, not just play the blues. Nine albums and thousands of performances later, Lil’ Ed is now universally hailed as a giant of the genre. Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials —bassist (and Ed’s half-brother) James “Pookie” Young, guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton— have remained together for over 30 years —an extraordinary feat for any group—, the band fueling Ed’s songs with their rock-solid, road-tested, telepathic musicianship…

Lil' Ed And The Blues Imperials
The band’s current lineup (from left): James “Pookie” Young (bass, backing vocals), Mike Garrett (guitar, backing vocals), Lil’ Ed Williams (guitar, lead vocals) and Kelly Littleton (drums)

…Born in Chicago on April 8, 1955, in the heart of Chicago’s tough West Side, Ed grew up surrounded by music. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Ed and Pookie received lessons and support from their famous uncle. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials…

…Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials released eight Alligator albums between 1986 and 2012. With each one, the band’s national and international stature grew as their fan base —known internationally as “Ed Heads”— continued to expand. With 2006’s Rattleshake, Ed and company reached a whole new audience. Die-hard “Ed Head” Conan O’Brien brought the band before millions of television viewers on two separate occasions. Success and accolades never stop pouring in…The group took home the Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They won the prestigious Blues Music Award for Band Of The Year in both 2007 and 2009…

‘Okay, enough of the hype,’ you might think, ‘show me the goods!’ Ask and you shall receive. Why don’t we just start with opener Hold That Train. Written by Williams, the tune got my immediate attention. If you’re into electric blues slide guitar, how can you not love it?

Are you ready for the next tune? Here’s Housekeeping Job, another fun track penned by Williams. Love that funky and soulful vibe. In addition to great electric slide guitar action, check out the tasty saxophone work by Eddie McKinley (tenor sax) and David Basinger (baritone sax). Damn, if this doesn’t make you move, I’m afraid you might be deaf or dead!

Okay, let’s slow things down to catch our breath with Check My Baby’s Oil. This track was co-written by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam Williams. What I’m wondering is why would somebody want to hang out with a car. 🙂

First I Look At The Purse is speeding things back up. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the classic tune was first recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965. Probably the best version I’ve heard of this tune is by The J. Geils Band and their fantastic “Live” Full House album from September 1972. But Lil’ Ed and his guys, whose dynamic playing style reminds me a bit of the ultimate party band, aren’t far behind.

Okay, all parties have to come to an end. Here’s one more, and yes, it’s sweet: Candy Sweet, another co-write by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam.

After having listened to this album, boy, do I feel like seeing these guys live. And they are indeed on the road. The only problem is, none of the currently scheduled gigs is within reasonable distance from my house. The closest I can see is New Year’s Eve in Moon, Pa. While entering the 2020s with that kind of music sounds like a lot of fun, it would be a six-hour drive. Even for a music nut like me, that’s a dealbreaker. Perhaps instead, I’ll write a blues about it: Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Why can’t you play a lil’ closer to me

Sources: Wikipedia; Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials website; YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

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During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube