If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by The Young Rascals

Once again it’s humpday and the thought of escaping to a desert island kind of sounds attractive. But wait, before I can embark on my imaginary trip, I have to make that crucial decision: Which one song to take with me.

For first-time visitors, it can’t be any song. It has to be by a band or artist I’ve rarely or not covered at all on the blog to date. And that band or artist (last name) has to start with a specific letter, which this week is “y”.

Some of the options that came to mind included The Yardbirds, Yes, Yola, Neil Young and The Youngbloods. But I’ve already covered all these artists. Luckily, I found one American group I had not written about: The Young Rascals. Since I could only name two of their songs, the choice was easy: Groovin’.

Written by band members Felix Cavaliere (keyboards, vocals) and Eddie Brigati (vocals, percussion), Groovin’ first appeared as a single in April 1967. The melodic laid-back tune also was the title track of their third studio album released in July that same year. Groovin’ became one of the group’s best-known songs, topping the pop charts in the U.S. and Canada, and climbing to no. 3 and no. 8 in Australia and the UK, respectively.

The group was formed in Garfield, New Jersey in 1965. In addition to Cavaliere and Brigati, the original line-up included Gene Cornish (guitar, harmonica vocals) and Dino Danelli (drums). The band did not have a dedicated bassist, so Cavaliere provided that part with his organ pedals. Initially, they used the name Them, but when they realized there already was a British band with that name, they came up with the Rascals. After signing with Atlantic Records, it turned out there was a group called The Harmonica Rascals who objected they would release records as The Rascals. To avoid conflict their manager Sid Bernstein decided to rename the group The Young Rascals.

Their eponymous debut album appeared in March 1966 and was an instant success in the U.S., rising to no. 15 on the Billboard 200. After the release of the Groovin’ album, the group decided the revert their name to The Rascals. By the time the band’s sixth studio record See appeared in December 1969, their chart and commercial success had started to wane. Brigati and Cornish left The Rascals in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Two more albums came out before the group broke up in 1972. There were a few reunions thereafter. In May 1997, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Following are some additional insights for Groovin’ from Songfacts:

Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Rascals wrote this song after they realized that because of their work schedule, they could see their girlfriends only on Sunday afternoons…Cavaliere told Seth Swirsky, who was shooting footage for his documentary Beatles Stories, “I met this young girl and I just fell head over heels in love. I was so gone that this joyous, wonderful emotion came into the music. Groovin’ was part of that experience. If you look at the story line, it’s very simple: we’re groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon because Friday and Saturdays are when musicians work…”

The record company executives who worked on “Groovin'” didn’t particularly like the song, but as they listened to the playback, influential New York DJ Murray the K overheard it and pronounced it a #1 record. Unbeknownst to the group, Murray went to Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler and demanded it be released. As the program manager and top DJ on the first FM rock station (WOR-FM), Murray the K had this kind of clout, and also the rare ability to connect with listeners and recognize what songs would become hits…

The term “Groovy” was becoming popular around this time, and the title of this song is a variation on the term. The first popular “Groovy” song was “A Groovy Kind Of Love,” and the first popular use in lyrics was in “59th Street Bridge Song.”

Smokey Robinson got the idea for his song “Cruisin'” from this one – his original hook was “I love it when we’re groovin’ together,” but he thought “cruisin'” was more intimate.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Another Sunday is upon us, which means the moment has come again for some music time travel. Hop on board, fasten your seat belt and let’s do this!

Santana/Welcome

Our journey today starts in 1973 with jazz fusion by Santana – very different from Evil Ways, Jingo, Soul Sacrifice, Oye Cómo Va, Samba Pa Ti and, of course, Black Magic Woman, which brought Carlos Santana and the classic line-up of his band on my radar screen 40-plus years ago. Welcome is the title track of Santana’s fifth studio album released in November 1973, and the follow-on to Caravanserai, which had marked a major departure from their classic seductive blend of Latin grooves and rock to free-form instrumental jazz fusion. I have to admit it was an acquired taste, and I still need to be in the right mood to listen to this type of music. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to give this a listen. It’s amazing music!

Joe Jackson/Friend Better

After a six-and-a-half minute-trance-inducing instrumental, it’s time to add some vocals and pick something a bit more mainstream. Enter Joe Jackson, a British artist I’ve admired since ca. 1980 when I received his sophomore album I’m the Man as a present for my 14th birthday. Initially called “an angry young man,” Jackson quickly proved to be a versatile artist. Over a 40-year-plus-and-counting recording career, he has gone far beyond his origins of punk-oriented pub rock and embraced multiple other genres like new wave, big band jazz and pop. Friend Better is from Jackson’s most recent 20th studio album Fool, which came out in January 2019. All songs were written, arranged and produced by Jackson. I also got to see him during the supporting tour and thought he was still the man. If you’re so inclined, you can read more about Fool here and the gig here.

The Church/Reptile

For our next stop, let’s jump to February 1988 and The Church, and I’m not talking about a house of worship. That’s when Starfish came out, the Australian rock band’s fifth album, which brought them their international breakthrough. Fellow blogger Bruce from Vinyl Connection had a great post about this gem a couple of weeks ago. When back in the day I heard the album’s first single Under the Milky Way, I was immediately hooked by the amazing sound and got Starfish on CD right away. Only mentioning Milky Way gives me some chills. Okay, admittedly, I’m also listening to the bloody tune as I’m writing this! While this song undoubtedly is the best-known track on Starfish, there’s definitely more to the album. Point in case: Reptile, the second single, credited to all four members of the group Steve Kilbey (lead vocals, bass), Peter Koppes (guitars, lead vocals), Marty Willson-Piper (guitars, lead vocals) and Richard Ploog (drums, percussion). Kilbey remains the only original member in the Aussie band’s current incarnation.

The Temptations/Get Ready

I trust Motown legends The Temptations need no introduction. When it comes to multi-part harmony singing, the Detroit vocal group ruled in my book. If you haven’t heard it, check out their heavenly rendition of Silent Night, and you quickly know what I mean. This brings me to Get Ready, released in February 1966, the group’s third no. 1 single in the U.S. on Billboard’s R&B charts and their second top 10 on the UK Official Singles Chart. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson, the tune also appeared on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready, released in June that same year. Motown founder and head Berry Gordy Jr. wasn’t impressed with the song’s performance on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 (no. 29). Subsequently, he replaced Robinson with Norman Whitfield as the group’s producer. Whitfield would become instrumental in shaping what became known as psychedelic soul in the late ’60s. Among others, he co-wrote and produced the epic Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.

Counting Crows/Mr. Jones

We’re starting to get into the final stretch with one of my all-time favorite tunes by Counting Crows and the ’90s for that matter. Like I bet was the case for many other music listeners as well, Mr. Jones brought the rock band from San Franciso on my radar screen when they suddenly burst on the scene in December 1993. Not only marked Mr. Jones the group’s breakthrough, but it also was their very first single. Interestingly, the lead single off their studio debut August and Everything Thereafter, which had come out three months earlier, failed to chart in the U.S. but proved successful elsewhere. Mr. Jones, co-written by Counting Crows guitarist and lead vocalist David Bryson and Adam Duritz, respectively, hit no. 1 in Canada and no. 13 in Australia. In the UK, it reached a respectable no. 28. I wonder whether American audiences felt the tune sounded too much like R.E.M. – not an unfair comparison, though it never bothered me. Last year, Counting Crows hit their 30th anniversary (unreal to me!). Bryson and Duritz remain part of the current line-up.

Little Richard/Tutti Frutti

And once again, this brings us to our final destination for this Sunday. While he called himself Little Richard, there was nothing small about Richard Wayne Penniman. The flamboyant artist was a giant of the classic rock & roll era, one of the most exciting performers who also wrote and co-wrote gems like Tutti Frutti, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Long Tall Sally and Jenny, Jenny. And I’m only talking about tunes from Richard’s debut album Here’s Little Richard released in March 1957. As was common at the time, it essentially was a compilation of Richard’s singles that had appeared earlier. Tutti Frutti, co-written by Penniman and Dorothy LaBostrie, had first been released in October 1955 and become Little Richard’s first U.S. hit, a no. 2 on Billboard’s R&B charts. It also reached the top 20 on the mainstream pop chart (no. 18). Inexplicably, at least from a musical perspective, Penniman never had a no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. His most successful tune there, Long Tall Sally, reached no. 6.

This wraps up another installment of The Sunday Six, folks, but we’ll embark on a new trip next Sunday. Meanwhile, this post wouldn’t be complete without a Spotify playlist of the above tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

The Temptations and Four Tops Shine On After 60-Plus Years

Iconic Motown acts deliver sweet soul music old school style and in perfect harmony at St. George Theatre on Staten Island, N.Y.

Nope, it wasn’t just my imagination, runnin’ away with me. On Thursday evening, I actually found myself at my first larger-scale indoor concert since January 2020: The Temptations and Four Tops at St. George Theatre, an old beautiful 2,800-seat performance venue on Staten Island, N.Y. I literally didn’t make the final decision to go until the morning of the show. In the end, perhaps I’m weaker than a man should be, I can’t help myself. One thing is for sure: It felt so damn good!

I’ve deliberately been avoiding large crowds since this bloody pandemic began, especially in closed rooms, so my decision to attend this show didn’t come easy. In the end, I felt the risk was acceptable, given the Covid numbers have been trending down, I’m fully vaccinated and I was wearing a mask for additional protection. In addition, performance venues in New York require that all visitors provide proof of vaccination before they can be admitted. Frankly, I wish New Jersey would do the same. On to the show!

Yours truly at St. George Theatre, which first opened its doors on December 4, 1929. And, yes, there was a big smile behind that mask!

I trust none of these two iconic Motown acts need much of an introduction. The Temptations, who opened the evening, were formed in 1960 in Detroit, Mich. Initially called The Elgins, the original members included Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Elbridge “Al” Bryant. Not surprisingly, the group’s composition has changed many times over the decades. Notably, Williams who just turned 80 on October 30, is still part of the current line-up, which also includes Terry Weeks (since 1997), Willie Greene (since 2015), Ron Tyson (since 1983) and Larry Braggs (since 2016). Braggs couldn’t be there since he was under the weather, as Williams put it, but the four of them did a marvelous job on vocals.

Following are a few clips I took from their set. First up: Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Co-written by producer Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., part of the songwriting and production powerhouse of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was first released as a single in May 1966 and also included on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready from June of the same year. The song became their fourth no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. It also reached no. 13, no. 32 and 21 on the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and UK, respectively.

For the most part, The Temptations presented their songs blending into each other, which made recording a bit tricky. Luckily, Setlist.fm included the song line-up from another recent show and, as far as I could tell, they replicated that same set. Here’s the highlight of their show and perhaps the highlight of the night: Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me) and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Just My Imagination, co-written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, first appeared as a single in January 1971 and was also part of the group’s 14th studio album Sky’s the Limit. The song became their third to top the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 8 in the UK, one of their most successful hits there. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett co-write, with its edgy psychedelic soul sound set quite a contrast. Originally, this tune was released as a single in May 1972 by The Undisputed Truth, another Motown act. But it was the version by The Temptations from September that year, which turned the great tune into a major hit, both in the U.S. and internationally. Once again, it topped the Billboard Hot 100, reached no. 12 in Canada, and became a top 20 hit in the UK and various European countries.

The last tune from the group’s set I’d like to call out was the closer My Girl, which Williams called The Temptations’ anthem. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White who also both produced the tune, My Girl became the group’s first big hit and a signature song. First released in December 1964, it reached no. 1 in the U.S. on both the mainstream and R&B Singles charts, climbed to no. 8 in Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in each the UK and Ireland. My Girl was also included on The Temptations’ sophomore album The Temptations Sing Smokey, which appeared in March 1965.

Here’s the entire setlist (based on the aforementioned entry in Setlist.fm)

Get Ready
Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (The Undisputed Truth cover)
I Can’t Get Next to You
Is it Gonna Be Yes Or No
Waitin’ On You
Treat Her Like a Lady
My Girl

After a 10 to 15-minute intermission, it was the Four Tops’ turn. That vocal quartet was first established as the Four Aims in 1953 in the Motor City. This means the group has been around for some 68 years, which I find absolutely incredible. What’s even more amazing is that one of the founding members, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, who is turning 86 years in December, is still part of the current line-up! The other original members were Levi Stubbs, Renaldo “Obi” Benson and Lawrence Payton. That line-up remarkably performed for more than 40 years until 1997 without any changes. Apart from Fakir, the group’s present members are Ronnie McNeir (since 1999), Alexander Morris (since 2019) and Lawrence Payton Jr., the son of original member Payton (since 2005).

Here’s Baby I Need Your Loving, the Four Tops’ first Motown single. Written by the aforementioned Holland-Dozier-Holland and released in July 1964, it marked an impressive start, reaching no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going all the way to no. 4 in Canada. The song was also included on the Four Tops’ eponymous debut album from January 1965.

Similar to The Temptations, the Four Tops hardly left breaks between their songs and combined some in medleys. Here’s a mighty triple combo of Reach Out (I’ll Be There), Standing in the Shadows of Love and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch). All of these three tunes, which formed the finale of the group’s set, were penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland. First released in 1966, Reach Out was the second Four Tops song to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. Also reaching no. 1 in the UK, no. 4 in Ireland, no. 6 in each The Netherlands and Canada, and no. 10 in Belgium, Reach Out became one of the group’s biggest hits and one of Motown’s best-known songs. Standing in the Shadows of Love couldn’t quite match that enormous chart success, but still climbed to no. 6 on the U.S. and British mainstream charts. I Can’t Help Myself marked the first no. 1 for the Four Tops in the U.S. on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. In the U.K., it got to no. 23.

Here’s the list of songs the Four Tops performed:

Loco in Acapulco
Baby I Need Your Loving
Bernadette
Same Old Song / Shake Me, Wake Me
I Believe in You and Me
I Got a Feeling
Mack the Knife
What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover)
When She Was My Girl
Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)
Reach Out (I’ll Be There) / Standing in the Shadows of Love
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

What else can I say? Other than sharing a 10-piece horn section, The Temptations and Four Tops were backed by excellent separate bands. One cool factoid the Four Tops‘ Fakir shared is that their backing band featured Earl Van Dyke Jr. on keyboards. He’s the son of Earl Van Dyke, the main keyboarder for Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers. Similar to Booker T. & the M.G.’s at Stax, The Funk Brothers can be heard on countless Motown recordings between 1959 and 1972.

Speaking of Stax, I’ve noted before that Motown introduced me to soul, which eventually led me to Stax, my favorite soul label these days. Having said this, while the Motown formula they used during the ’60s can become repetitive, many of these songs were done incredibly well, thanks in part due to excellent studio musicians like The Funk Brothers. That’s something I realized once again listening to this music on Thursday night.

The final thoughts in this post shall belong to Otis Williams, who was quoted on the website of St. George Theatre as follows: “When I tell people we are God’s group…I don’t mean it arrogantly. It’s just that we have been tested time and again and keep coming back. We have suffered the death of so many legendary singers…Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin. Other’s like Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples have left, and yet our unity is tighter, our sound brighter and our popularity greater. Someone has watched over this group. Someone has protected our integrity. Someone has said…just go on singing and it’ll get better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; St. George Theatre website; YouTube

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.

20191014_jessywilson_wc4

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