Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nuclear Sounds

In our days, we witness it once again demonstrated, if demonstration was needed, how vicious and dangerous the use of nuclear energy can become in a matter of minutes ... if things go wrong, that is, and are not under control any longer. Today, more and more people understand this and it has become almost impossible to invoke things atomic with any but a negative connotation.

Not so in the 1940s and 1950s. Not that every reference to nuclear power during that epoch was unambigously positive. The possible use of nuclear weapons was seen with great fear, even panic, and the U.S. were living under the nuclear threat coming from the Soviet Union. Yet it was the U.S. government that had, in 1945, used this terrible weapon for the first and only time in human history and ushered in the nuclear age. But also the optimism concerning the non-military use of nuclear power continued unabated in those years. Only few were afraid that human engi- neering could prove insufficient for the handling of atomic energy, while many saw the advantages and believed in unlimited progress anyhow. Both, the fear and the uncritical optimism, left their mark in the music. I will speak here of R&B, Blues and Gospel in particular.

It is mainly thanks to the Dutch R&B specialist Guido Van Rijn that we know more about the very special, actually quite bizarre category of »atomic songs«. The second chapter of his very interesting study The Truman & Eisenhower Blues. African-American Blues and Gospel Songs, 1945–1960 (London – New York: Conti- nuum 2004) is entitled »Atom And Evil« (!), and this moderately funny wordplay stems from a song of the Golden Gate Quartet, released in summer 1946. In this chapter, Van Rijn presents the results of his reseach on »atomic songs« and also refers to a seminal article by Charles Wolfe: »Nuclear Country: The Atomic Bomb in Country Music«, in: The Journal of Country Music 6 (1978), pp. 4-21. Finally, a fine ressource in the worldwide web is »Atomic Platters: Geerhart's Periodic Table of Atomic Music«, part of the larger database of Cold War Music.

From LIFE, November 20, 1950
The use of nuclear bombs against Japan in 1945 caused the first mention of things atomic in blues songs, e.g. in Homer Harris's »Atomic Bomb Blues« from 1946. »It was early on morning, when all the good work was done, and that big bird was loaded, with that awful atomic bomb« say the lyrics of that song in the recording of which Muddy Waters participated as a guitarist. Likewise in 1946 (but according to some only in 1947) a song by the title »Atom And Evil« was recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet (see also below). Based on a wordplay with »Adam And Eve« the song warns that a »romance« between »Atom« and »Evil« will bring about a cata- strophy. This is of course a true and justified claim, but the interesting point is that the song not only warns of nuclear power falling into the wrongs hands, it also declares this danger to be sufficiently great in order to abandon atomic energy altogether:
I'm talking 'bout Atom and Evil
If you don't break up that romance soon,
We'll all fall down and go: Boom, boom, boom! (...)
Now, Atom is a youngster and pretty hard to handle,
But we'd better step in and stop that scandal.
Because if Atom and Evil should ever wed,
Lord, then darn near all of us are going to be dead.

From BILLBOARD , September 30, 1950
Little surprisingly, and perhaps predictably, the topic had some impact on gospel songs. From the January 1950 we have the song »Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb« by the Pilgrim Travelers, and in June »Jesus Is God's Atomic Bomb« by the Swan Silvertone Singers was released. After the U.S. military espionage had discovered the nuclear potential of the Soviet Union in autumn 1949, both songs must be seen as influenced by this new threat. And almost at the same time the newly develped hydrogen-bomb (»H-bomb«) became reality. The sheer destructive power of that devilish weapon immediately stirred the minds and hearts of all. In LIFE, a fake aerial photo was printed in the January 30, 1950, issue showing the hypothetical devastation of Chicago after an H-bomb attack. And the issue of December 18 contains a »pictorial essay« bearing the title »How U.S. Cities Can Prepare for Atomic War«.

There now was certainly an atmosphere of fear and awe, and the gospel songs referred to above consequently called upon mankind to turn back to Jesus in view of the new, terrible threat. The impact of Jesus is said to be much stronger than any nuclear weapon: »You know, now everybody's worried, well, about that atomic bomb. And no one seems worried about the day my Lord shall come ... Well, and he'll hit like an atom bomb when he comes.«

From BILLBOARD, November 23, 1946
Notwithstanding the threat caused by new nuclear weapons and the existential fear they caused we also witness the development of a typical »atomic vocabulary« that slowly found its way into everyday speech. This was mainly due to the dominant optimism towards the non-military use of nuclear energy. It is enough to leaf through the pages of popular magazines of the epoch to see with how much confidence in technical progress and how naively the rapid development of civil nuclear energy was reported. Just read the article »Atomic Progress« in LIFE, published on January 1, 1950! Moreover, from the late 1940s »atomic vocabulary« had entered the linguistic dominion of the entertainment industry, even using »atomic vocabulary« for toys and funfair attractions and coming up with things like the »Mutoscope Atomic Bomber«

In the same vein »atomic vocabulary« began to crop up in secular songs, for example in Amos Milburn's »Atomic Baby« in which he called his baby »U 92«, that is by the number of uranium in the periodic table of chemical elements! Quite obviously, the enormous power produced by nuclear fission invited its metaphorical use with clear sexual innuendo:
I love my baby, she makes me, oh, so blue
She keeps me so worried, that I call her U92.
She's got a high potential and a low resistance point,
I have to be careful, that gal might blow up the joint.
Yes, she heats my room, she lights my light,
She starts my motor and it runs all night.

From BILLBOARD, March 7, 1953
The r&b singer Linda Hayes who in 1953 re-recorded Amos Milburn's song in a slightly different version came to be known as »Atomic Baby«, and even modern anthologies of her songs are sold using this very epithet, »Atomic Baby«.

From BILLBOARD, April 19, 1952
It is also in gospel songs that we find a positive attitude towards the non-military use of nuclear energy, e.g. in »The Atomic Telephone« by The Spirit of Memphis Quartet, released in August 1951: »God have given us a great new power, want us to use it for the good of all mankind. Some people wanna use it to destroy everything, oh, God didn't mean it like that.« And the further we move into the 1950s the more nonchalant did the use of »atomic vocabulary« generally become: black musicians were billed as »Mr Atomic So-and-So«, and »atomic« soon acquired the same meaning as later »fantastic« or »supersonic«. In a November '52 issue of Billboard kiddie rides were advertised that were called »Atomic Space Ranger«. There was scarcely talk of the bomb now ... if not again for entertainment purposes! Thus already back in 1949 »atomic balloons« were advertised which had a »vivid Atom, Bomb effect«!

From BILLBOARD, May 14, 1949
Van Rijn reaches the following conclusion:
In blues, atomic energy appears mainly as a sexual metaphor, but in gospel music it was used as a metaphor for God's power. (...) A sense of wonder instilled by the awesome atomic power possessed by the United States is mingled with feelings of apprehension when it is learned that the Russians have acquired their own version. (Van Rijn, The Truman and Eisenhower Blues, p. 39 f.)
The fear of nuclear weapons is still with us today, due to the sinister efforts of North Corea, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel. But at least we have learned (and the people in the Ukraine and lately in Japan have paid dearly for this!) that the immense danger lurking behind the civil use of nuclear energy cannot be eliminated by human control. The »sense of wonder instilled by atomic power« is a thing of the past and not likely to return soon. Or so we must hope.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Warning

Calling on Mankind to abandon nuclear energy

III A.M. Records LP # 1022
In 1972 Mitty Collier saw the first gospel-album of her career released. Its cover image is certainly drastic: Mitty indicates a globe that is going up in flames. But it is not real yet, just a warning of things to come. And a warning for our time as well - many among us still need to be warned. Admittedly, Mitty Collier did not, with her posture, intend to put us on the alert of a nuclear catastrophy, even though the image seems to evoke that if we look at it from today's perspective. It is tempting to re-interpret it as a warning to us, still living in the nuclear age. No, Mitty did not think of a nuclear catastrophy. Rather she points at the state of contemporary christendom. That's why her song »The Warning – Get Right, Church!« is critical of and directed against those preachers who do not live up to the high ideals of what they are preaching: hypocrites preaching moral and themselves leading »a wicked life« instead.

Mitty Lene Collier from Birmingham, Alabama, was the seventh of seven children - »the seventh daughter«, which also features in a few blues songs, albeit less prominently than »the seventh son« ... Robert Pruter, the authority on the Chicago music scene, remarked that »she must be counted among the best soul singers of all time.« (Robert Pruter, Chicago Soul, Urbana–Chicago 1991, p. 102). She was one of the many soul singers who embarked on a second career in the 1970s when they turned to gospel music and began, in many cases, to be active in church.

And Rev. Collier was especially active in this regard: in 1983 she had the idea to install the Bible Study Telephone Prayer Line (BSTPL), meant to enable Bible study via telecommunication ... that's how things were in the pre-Facebook era! In 1989 she became a pastor in the Chicago More Like Christ Christian Fellowship in Chicago (today part of the New Zion Christian Fellowship). Mitty Collier was awarded a B.A. »in Evangelism« and a honorary Ph.D. in theology (Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree). And nowadays pastor Mitty Collier is also present on FB ...

Mitty Collier came first to Chicago in the summer of '59 to visit her brother who was living there at the time. In Chicago she met her old French teacher from Birmingham who took care of her - not by giving her further lessons in French, but by inscribing her at several local talent contests! In one of these shows, Al Benson's »Talent Show« in the venerable Regal Theater, Mitty made the first place for 6 weeks in a row (that's how she remembers it, see Pruter, Chicago Soul, p. 103). What then hap- pened is history: Chess Records soon had her name in the notebook and eventually gave her a contract in 1960. Her first single saw the light of the day in 1961, and she remained with Chess until 1968. She had her first hit with »Part Time Love« in summer 1963 (r&b # 20), and according to the Billboard charts her biggest success came with »Sharing You« in 1966 (r&b # 10). However, her best-known tune of the 1960s remains »I Had A Talk With My Man« (1964) which hit # 03 on the Cashbox r&b charts. Much sought after until today is her 1965 Chess-album »Shades Of A Genius«. Her last recordings for Chess were made in the Fame-Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a place that saw the likes of Etta James and Aretha Franklin coming and going in those days. After her contract with Chess had ended, Mitty recorded some songs for William Bell's Peachtree Label in Atlanta (1969–70), yet without having the same success as before.

When she was still singing »secular« soul you could note a subtle but persistent undercurrent of gospel. Suffice it to say that the best-known song »I Had A Talk With My Man« was adapted from »I Had A Talk With God (Last Night)« by James Cleveland.  But her return to gospel in 1972 was caused by a very personal experience. In October 1971, her voice started to fail and she faced the danger of losing it completely. The sleeve notes by Evelyn Spotser tell us what happened then: »During this time prayer and faith in the Lord were the keys to the return of this fine, glorious voice that you will now hear. Although she attended a physician, it is quite clear to her that it was the Lord who gave her back the power to sing again.« This experience and Mitty's recovery led to her conversion as a reborn Christian, and ultimately to her first gospel-LP of 1972: »The Warning« (III A.M. Record Company # 1022). The majority of songs on this album were written by Mitty together with arrangeur und pianist Charles Pike, they are therefore Collier-originals. The album was recorded in 1972 at the Universal Studio in Chicago.

You can hear two songs from this album in the following: »You Cannot Serve Two Masters« and »I Can See Clearly Right Now«. The first song, »You Cannot Serve Two Masters«, is a gospel-blues-ballad, referring to a passage in Matthew (6:24): »No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon«. As in other songs Mitty here expresses her scorn at those »so-called Christians« who are unwilling to chose between God and Mammon. The songs says, »just like the rooster sitting on the fence, you find so-called Christians living just like this: with their heads on one side, and their tails on the other«. The second song, »I Can See Clearly Right Now«, is still deeper in the gospel-blues-mould, actually a rare and beautiful example of its kind. As to its message we have here a typical »conversion song« in which the rebirth in faith is likened to a recovery from blindness: »Touch me, Lord, open my eyes so I can see!« Certainly, you don't have to be a Christian to admit that too many are still struck with blindness in our days!

Mitty Collier:
»You Cannot Serve Two Masters« / »I Can See Clearly Right Now« from the LP »The Warning« (1972):

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Baby Washington, Take 2

Yesterday I was speaking about Baby Washington's LP »With You In Mind« (Veep # 16528) from 1968. And I already said that on the back cover of this album there are several photos showing the singer in a park setting. Now, I didn't want to hold back these photos. They come here with two more songs from Baby Washington's LP: The first is her cover of Etta James's hit »At Last« which highlights Baby Justine's beautiful voice. The second song, »I'm Calling You Baby«, is uptempo and clearly made à la mode. It's not particularly original as a tune, but the funkiest you will find on the LP. Both songs were never released as a single.

Baby Washington: »At Last« from the Veep-LP »With You In Mind« (1968):

Baby Washington: »I'm Calling You Baby« from the Veep-LP »With You In Mind« (1968):

Friday, March 25, 2011

One, Two, Three

»I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« (1952 – 1960 – 1968)

One song, two Washingtons, three recordings.
The song by Duke Ellington (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics) »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« from 1941 was recorded by dozens of singers over the years. To name but a few: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Nina Simone, further Peggy Lee, Georgia Gibbs, Della Reese, Timi Yuro, Donna Summer and Cher ... and also, what seems to be less known, by Dinah Washington and Baby Washington.

Dinah Washington, »the Queen«, appeared on June 27, 1952, with the Wynton-Kelly Trio in New York's »Birdland« Jazz club. The »Birdland« – officially the »Birdland Café« – had been opened in 1949 by Morris »Moische« Levy whose name is indelibly linked, for better or worse, to the history of black music, especially in New York. In the early 1950s, the club was also known for being a place for live radio transmissions because Levy co-operated with the New York WJZ station. From after midnight to the wee hours WJZ transmitted a »record show«, and this included one hour of live music from the Birdland. And there, on June 27, it was Dinah Washington with her trio on the bandstand, not for the first time. They performed several songs, among others »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good«. These so-called »Birdland broadcasts« of Dinah Washington from the years 1951-52 were for decades never made public until they were released on CD in 2007 (Giant Step CD GSCR 024). You can hear in the following the first part of Dinah's live performance of »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« from that CD:

Dinah Washington: »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« (New York, Birdland broadcast, June 27, 1952):

Never treats me sweet and gentle, the way he should
      I've got it bad and that ain't good
My poor heart is sentimental, hmmm, it's not made of wood
      I've got it bad and that ain't good
But when the weekend's over and Monday rolls around
My man and me, we gin some, we pray some and sin some
He don't love me like I love him, nobody could
      Say: I've got it bad and that ain't good

In February 1960, almost eight years after the Birdland date, Dinah recorded the song for one of her studio LPs. Much had happened in the meantime: In June 1952 she had been known mainly to the black public, her last hit having been »Trouble in Mind« (r&b # 04). But in 1960 she was a generally known, nationwide acclaimed jazz-pop-bigband-singer who just had released her arguably most famous album, »What A Diff'rence A Day Makes!« She could, and indeed coveted, to sing everything and every style, no matter whether blues, jazz or »pop«. Her repertoire thus inclu- ded many different songs, and she defied categorization. Rather, she was her own category:
»She had headlined a jazz bill with Dave Brubeck, and now [in 1960] she was on the pop charts with Brook Benton–but not so pop that she didn't draw her faithful rhythm and blues fans, too. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan may have been bigger stars, but neither ... commanded such sustained attention across the musical spectrum. With strings or with horns, upbeat or ballad, Dinah continued to put her stamp on anything she sang.« (Nadine Cohodas, Queen. The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, New York 2006, p. 335)

Mercury LP # MG-20604
As I said before, in 1959 and in early 1960 her most famous and memorable hits were released: »Unforgettable«, »What A Diff'rence A Day Makes« and her duet with Brook Benton, »Baby You've Got What It Takes« (r&b # 01). Undoubtedly she was at the top of her career in these months, and in summer 1960 another of her several signature songs was released, »This Bitter Earth«. And in the midst of this great and lasting success she recorded, in New York on February 16, 1960, a song which she had often and since many years performed live on stage: »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« ... although Dinah, who never paid much attention to lyrics, tended to »I've Got It Bad«.

On this recording Dinah was accompanied by the Nat Goodman Orchestra, with Joe Zawinul on piano. The song was released in December 1960 on the Mercury LP # MG-20604 »I Con- centrate On You«. Being an old standard, as were a number of tunes on this album, it was lavishly orchestrated, yet Dinah's voice still reigns supreme and she made this song hers, as she always did: »Dinah was now such an established presence that she could record what she wanted, and Mercury could market the music however it wanted. Down Beat listed I Concentrate On You in a December [1960] list of "recent jazz releases." Cash Box declared that Dinah now had "permanent pop stature" that enabled her to "return more and more to the blues"« (Cohodas, Queen, p. 355).

Dinah Washington: »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« from the Mercury LP »I Concentrate On You« (1960):

Well, he never treats me sweet and gentle, the way he should
      I've got it bad and that's no good
My poor heart is sentimental and it's not made of wood
      Believe me, baby, I got it bad and that's no good
But when the week end's over and Monday rolls around
I end up like I start out, just cryin' my poor heart out
Well, he don't love me like I love him, I guess nobody could
      That's why I got It bad and that ain't good
Though folks with good intentions tell me to save my tears
I'm glad I'm mad about him and I just can't live without him
Well, Lord above me, make my man love me the way he should
      'Cause it's a drag to have it bad, believe me, it's no good
      You heard me the first time: I've got it bad and that ain't good

And again eight years later ... another singer recorded that song, and she was, coincidentally, also called »Washington«: Justine »Baby« Washington, to be exact. Baby Washington who was often billed as »Jeanette Baby Washington« hailed from Bamberg in South Carolina, but grew up in Harlem. In 1963 and 1965, she had two hits in the top ten of the r&b charts, »That’s How Heartaches Are Made« and »Only Those In Love«, respectively. in 1967 she went from the New York-based Sue Records to Veep Records (likewise in New York). For the Sue label, which for some time had the likes of Ike & Tina Turner under contract, she actually recorded more Top-100 songs than any other Sue artist, Ike & Tina included. You can find the most complete and correct discography of Baby Washington on the Pete Hoppula's webpage.

Veep was a subsidiary of United Artists, and Baby Washington's first single on Veep (# 1274), released in November 1967, contained the songs »White Christmas« and »Silent Night« ... and both songs had, in November of the previous year, already been released as a
Sue-Single! This smacks, even to the least suspicious, of desperate money-grabbing: not only that a much-talented soul singer gets the Santa Claus treatment, but her X-mas vocal gift is released for two years in a row by two different labels ... However, Veep Records did then try to put Baby Washington back on the soul scene by releasing in 1968 a new album entitled »With You In Mind« (Veep LP # VPS-16528). (Curiously, on the labels we read »Veep Gospel« ... I can't explain this fact.)

Visually, the album makes much of the presence of Baby Justine, and a very pretty presence indeed it is. On the front cover, she poses as a supper-club vamp in a silvery-white sequined dress, while on the back cover there are several shots showing her in a striped pantsuit and posing in a park, viz. standing in a tree fork, feeding doves and ... playing around, shyly smiling, with a baseball bat.
(You can see these photos here.)
Musically, the album offers little original material and rather comes along as a collection of seasoned chart toppers. Thus we find the Etta James-hit »At Last« beside other standards such as »People Sure Act Funny«, »I'm On The Outside (Looking In)«, »All Around The World« and »Take Me Like I Am«. Classy stuff it may well be, but given the choice of songs it was hard for Baby Washington to escape the danger of sounding conventional, after all. Still, her vocal performance is always remarkable and not seldom beautiful, the arrangements are never less than thouroughly professional. In the All Music Guide to Soul (San Francisco 2003) this LP was deemed worthy to be mentioned and awarded the mediocre number of three stars.

In any case, Baby Washington's Version of »I Got It Bad« is particularly interesting if one compares it with Dinah Washington's 1960 version. In listening first to the older, then to the younger version you can hear the development of 1960s' music in a nutshell (and I apologize for this awkward metaphor): Dinah's moody swinging version, underpinned by the string section, aims directly at the limbic center of emotions. Baby's much speedier Soul-version, dominated by the rhythm and horn sections, aims at the entire body ... and not to mention the background singers who now contribute with the refrain »no good, it ain't no good«.

And isn't it a strange coincidence – if coincidence it is! – that the albums of both Dinah and Baby Washington bear such similar titles: »I Concentrate On You« / »With You in Mind«?

Baby Washington: »I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good« from the Veep LP »With You In Mind« (1968):

Never treats me sweet and gentle, oh the way, the way he should, no
      I've got it bad and that ain't good
           (no good, it ain't no good)
My poor heart is sentimental, not made, not made of wood, no
      I said: I've got it bad and that ain't good
           (no good, it ain't no good)
When the weekend is over and Monday rolls around
Well I, I end up just like I start out, just cryin' my poor heart out
           (cryin' my poor heart out)
He don't love me, not like I love him, and no no, nobody could, no
      I've got it bad and that ain't good
           (no good, it ain't no good)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Billie Joe ... Goes Soul

Three makes a crowd! Therefore, after the posts of the last days, here is still another version of Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe«. This time it's a »southern Soul«-version, taken from Joe Tex's album »Soul Country«.

Joe Tex (1933-1982) was during the 1960s an ever-present artist in the music business, and in the years 1966-1968 he was at the peak of his career (at least for the time being). Between 1965 and 1970 he had several LPs on Dial Records which were distributed (and actually also manufactured) by Atlantic Records. On the Dial/Atlantic LP # SD 8187 »Soul Country«, released in July 1968, Joe Tex re-interprets known C&W-tunes in the manner of Soul-tunes ... and this explains the ambi- guity of the album title: »Country made into Soul« or simply »Land of Soul«, i.e. »Soul Country«.

Now, Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe« is not really a C&W-song in the proper sense, but it still might be considered sufficiently »country« in order to receive the Soul-treatment on Joe Tex's LP. The result is worth hearing. On the other hand, I think that Bobbie Gentry's song cannot be topped, no matter which style you adopt or which adaptions you are about to make. But still ... listen here:

Joe Tex: »Ode To Billie Joe« from the Atlantic LP »Soul Country« (1968):

Monday, March 21, 2011

Billie Joe ... Goes Instrumental

In the last post you could hear Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe«, and we pondered the great influence this song had on many other styles of music. Today, I would like to present another example for this fact. It is taken from the album »Doin' Our Thing« (Stax LP 724) by Booker T & The MGs, released in January 1968.

Booker T & The MGs are, of course, well-known. They were one of the most famous formations recording for the Memphis Stax-label during the 1960s and among the most popular instrumental groups in general. The group included organist/pianist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald »Duck« Dunn (from 1964) and drummer Al Jackson. On their LP »Doin' Our Thing« we find a noteworthy adaption of Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe«. A very calm piece which actually only evokes, rather than adapts, the original song. In fact, it more resembles a impressionistic sound study, quite original by and in itself ... there is a certain Debussy-like quality to the tune, being a collage of melodical moods losely based on the original:

Booker T & The MGs: »Ode To Billie Joe« from the Stax LP 724 (1968):

* * *
I recently came across a notice speaking about the success of Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe« and the subsequent flood of cover versions, both instrumental and vocal. It is from the September 23, 1967, issue of Billboard, page 4:

*** BONUS SONG added March 31, 2012 ***

The Billboard article quotes, among several cover version, the instrumental by the Kingpins (i.e. King Curtis and his band) on Atco # 6516. This version was recorded in Memphis (Aug. 24, '67) at the American Sound Studios (supervised by Chips Moman; incidentally, there was also a recording session of the Sweet Inspirations that very same day!).
The tune did great on the r&b charts and eventually entered the Top Ten, peaking at # 6. It was then included in King Curtis's Atco LP King Size Soul (out in Nov. '67). A Billboard review described this version as »mellow jazz, which is loaded with soul« (Nov. 25, 1967, issue p. 84) and this is about right, I guess. In difference to Booker T's impressionistic rendering of the Ode we have here a smooth, albeit conventional version, actually rather close to the original. And of course the tenor sax makes this version very different from Booker's organ-based fantasie de Billie Joe ...

King Curtis & The Kingpins: »Ode To Billie Joe« from the Atco LP # SD 33-231 (1967):

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Billie Joe ... Goes Gospel

»The Bad Apple« (1968)

One of the most famous and memorable songs of 1967 was »Ode To Billie Joe« by Bobbie Gentry. Almost over night the song not only reached the top of the pop charts but was covered by countless other singers.
Indeed, up to the present day it is hard, if not impossible, to not be overwhelmed by the melodramatic charme of the song and the voice, rough and smooth at the same time, of Bobbie Gentry:

Bobbie Gentry: »Ode To Billie Joe« from the Capitol LP »Ode To Billie Joe« (1967)

The impact of Bobbie's »Ode« went far beyond the pop field and quickly made itself felt in the realms of classic C&W, Soul and Gospel. In many cases the song was not only adapted in order to fit a certain mould. Rather, there were soon a number of songs which were more or less »inspired« by the tune without being a re-recording or a cover version. One of the best examples for this comes from the Checker LP # LPS-10044, »The Bad Apple« by The Meditation Singers, released in 1968.

Checker LPS-10044 (1968)
The Meditation Singers were founded at some point between 1947 and 1950 by E[a]rnestine Rundless (1914-2007)* and her husband in Detroit. However, the accounts differ and later also Della Reese claimed to be the founder, at least the co-founder, of the group. They made their first recordings in 1953 and were heading off for a career that was to span several decades. The personnel, apart from Ernestine Rundless herself, changed over the years more than once, and at times the Meditation Singers counted Della Reese, Cassietta George and Ernestine's daughter, Laura Lee Rundless among their members. As is well-known, Laura Lee went solo in the second half of the 1960s and became a successful soul singer. It is pretty unclear up to which point in the 1960s she was still performing with the Meditation Singers. From around 1965 onwards she is not any longer credited as an active member of the group on either the LPs or the preserved recording files. However, she herself maintained, against the available evidence, that she still was part of the group when they recorded their albums for the Checker label, including »Bad Apple«.

Home of the Meditation Singers was Detroit, and their activities started at Detroit's New Liberty Baptist Church. I will return to their early history in another post. In the second half of the 1950s they reached a certain notoriety with the public yet never became truly famous. On their 1964 LP »I'm Holding On« (Gospel LP # MG-3038) we read: »Under the direction and leadership of Earnestine Rundless, The Meditation Singers have fast become America's favourite group of Gospel Singers.« This is grossly exaggerated and at no point, in 1964 or before and after, corresponded to the truth. And still, they occupy a special place in the history of gospel music because they are said to have been the first religious group in Detroit to perform with a fully fledged band, that is, with drums, electric guitar and bass.

In the early 1960s, they crossed over, while remaining a gospel group, into the secular field, causing much mayhem by this move. In 1962 they were one of the first gospel outfits to perform in Las Vegas when they accompanied their former member Della Reese during her show in the Flamingo Casino. In the July 1962 issue of EBONY there is an article (and an interview with Della Reese) dealing with that bold move and entitled »Gospel to Pop to Gospel: Della Reese Defends Night Club Act«. There is also a photo that shows Della Reese and The Meditation Singers in concert at another secular venue, viz. New York's »Copacabana« night club.

From EBONY, July 1962 issue, p. 107

As the 1960s went on the Meditation Singers more and more relied on contemporary r&b as their basic musical style until they became known as »one of the hardest singing female gospel groups« and a »powerhouse gospel group«. They certainly merited this fame as you can hear in the following. From the perspective of gospel music they firmly stood in the tradition of »sanctified shouting« which together with the r&b backing of their respective bands made for an explosive mixture. In fact, the Checker recordings of the Meditation Singers during the second half of the 1960s came often close to contemporary Soul or even early Funk. Their sound was generally, and with good reason, qualified as »cross-over music« or, as many said at the time, »gospop«. About the producer of the Checker LP »The Bad Apple«, Ralph Bass, we can read on the back cover:
»In the Meditation Singers, five soul-shocked-and-shouting-girl singers from Detroit, and in arranger-composer Gene Barge, producer Bass found the combination he sought for this "cross-over" effort, merging the two worlds of pop and gospel, this telling-the-truth-like-it-is-today.«

It doesn't come as a surprise, then, that the Meditation Singers were open to inspiration by contemporary pop songs, e.g. Bobbie Gentry's »Ode To Billie Joe«. This is documented by the first song on their LP »The Bad Apple«. Quite obviously, this introductory song of the same title is profoundly inspired by Bobbie's »Ode« as can be heard from the very first notes. On the back cover this indebtness of the song to Bobbie Gentry's hit is openly acknowledged:
»A fat, compelling Cajun bass line opens The Bad Apple as Donna Hammon [!] warms up the "temptation" story with the other girls forming a tight, neat "halo" chorus behind her. There is a strong Ode To Billy Joe flavor in this gospel blues which is the album's title number.«
The song, and the entire album, were recorded in February 1968 at the Ter Mar Studios in Chicago. E[a]rnestine Rundless and Donna Hammonds variously sing lead on this album, and the other members of the group were Verlene Rogers, Marie Waters (Della Reese's sister) and Victoria Beasley on organ/piano. The possible participation of Laura Lee (Rundless) remains an open question.

The Meditation Singers: »The Bad Apple« from the Checker LP »The Bad Apple« (1968)

The name of E[a]rnestine Rundless is sometimes rendered »Earnestine«, sometimes »Ernestine«. On the Checker LPs we normally find »Earnestine«, on other LPs of the period before, in most of the contemporary press and in the available research literature we have »Ernestine«.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tina Drinks Coffee

»Black Coffee« (1972)

On the cover of United Artists LP # UAS-5598 »Feel Good« we read »Ike & Tina«. Actually, this is beside the truth. This album is, in fact, only »Tina«. Ike is quoted as producer and engineer, and the songs were recorded in »his« Bolic Sound Studio in Inglewood, Calif. in March 1972. But all songs are credited to Tina, except one Lennon-McCartney-title. On the entire album, Tina does not perform a single tune by Ike. So it seems that this was the first effort of Tina's to get away from Ike, musically for the time being. In other respects she couldn't get away from him: Black Coffee is her name. At the same time, in 1972, Ike more and more lost himself to his cocaine addiction and got his kicks, bodilywise, with white hippie girls. Tina knew it, of course, the girls often went in and out of her home. And there were quite a few persons at the time who actually viewed the self-destruction of the egomaniacal brute Ike and his escapades as a hip, never-ending party.

At first, Tina was enthusiastic about the new Bolic Studio that Ike had installed: »I always really wished that Ike could get what he wanted – a string of hit records. Because when he did, I was going to leave him. ... So when he built that studio, I thought: "Wonderful - I'll be rid of him!"« (Tina Turner with Kurt Loder: I, Tina. My Life Story, New York 1986, p. 166). But, alas, this soon appeared to be an illusion: Ike produced no hits, but went on working frenetically in his studio ... and this was to become a pain in Tina's ass: »Then the phone calls started – three o'clock in the morning: "Tina, Ike wants you." And I'd have to get up and drive down there and sing, or sometimes just bring them food. That's when I started drinking coffee, to stay awake.« (My Life Story, p. 166).

How much of Tina's life is in »Black Coffee«? A whole lot, I think, and not only because she was called to the studio in the middle of the night and pumped herself up with caffeine. »Now I'm independent and nobody's maid« seems at first sight to refer to her life-story, Tina being an Afro-American Cherokee from Tennessee: »I started out as a slave, I got free ...« we hear Tina sing. But in hindsight it is easy to see also a reference to Tina's situation in 1972 in those lines: »Now I'm independent« may therefore as well express her firm intention to get away from Ike, physically and psychologically. Again in hindsight, it proved to be wishful thinking.
But there may be more autobiographical references in this song: »my mind is black«, »a cup of black coffee is what a working man wanna see«? Black Coffee »with not a thing«, no sugar, no milk, black coffee that you can buy for a dime. Is this, after all, Tina herself, who didn't get nothing from Ike and had learned not to expect anything from him? Hadn't Ike bought her for a dime, while she had to come begging for every dollar she liked to spend? In this view, also »America, the land of the free«, as the songs says, might be little more than autobiographical sarcasm ... And what about the »Black Tea« which doesn't compare »with me«? Well yes, black it is, but tea still conjures up the idea of something insipid, pale, black by name but not by appear- ance. Could that refer to the white hippie girls who went after Ike (or the other way round)? And isn't Tina »the real thing«, the »Black Coffee« which is »what a workin' man wanna see«? Speculations. They come to mind somewhat easily. And we have to conclude: For all the rhetorics of liberation and freedom which we find in »Black Coffee« Tina wasn't free of Ike yet.

But the lyrics of this song have, quite apart from the possible autobiographical side, many other sides as well. It speaks of Black Power, of America as the land of milk and honey for all, of sexual energy. Last not least it also gives a cynical comment on the music bizness: »You can get what you want if you got some DoReMi«. Yet again, this might well be a double-sided message having also a personal tint, as Ike was fooling around with several of The Ikettes over the years, much to the chagrin of Tina! Without doubt the song alludes to all this and more besides, presenting itself to various kinds of »lectures«. Admittedly, the song itself, as a piece of music, is in danger to be buried among the significances of its messages. In fact, it is not even »a song« in the classical mode, rather a statement with musical coating. But that's not really the point here:

Tina Turner: »Black Coffee« from the LP »Feel Good« (1972)

Black Coffee is my name
Black Coffee with not a thing
Black Coffee freshly ground, fully packed
Hot Black Coffee is where it's at

Way back on yonder, I don't know when
I was brought over before I was ten
You see my skin is brown but my mind is black
But here Black Coffee is where it's at

Black Tea, black as can be
Black Tea can't compare with me
Black Tea is good as it can be
But a cup of Black Coffee is what a working man wanna see

Here in America, the land of the free
You can get what you want if you got some DoReMi
I started out as a slave
I got free, I got paid

Now I'm independent and nobody's maid
I got me a place, I got me a raise
Come over Black Coffee
And how good it taste

A dime, I say, is all you pay
For a cup of Black Coffee
Here in the States

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In Memory of Lyn Collins (1948–2005)

Today six years ago, on March 15, the news-wires announced the death of Lyn Collins (real name Gloria LaVern Collins). She passed away on March 13, 2005, in Pasadena, aged 56. She had just returned from a tour in Europe, actually the first solo-tour of her entire career.

People LP # 5602 (Cover)
It is often said that the Texas-born singer made her first recording in 1964. However, about the spurious song she is said to have recorded - »Unlucky In Love« - there is next to no reliable information and I haven't come across it yet (but cf. Bob McGrath, The Soul Discography Vol. 1, West Vancouver 2010, p. 332. Other relevant discographies do not list the song at all.) Her actual career started when she was employed as backing vocalist by James Brown, in 1970. Brown got to know her because Lyn was married to a man who promoted the James Brown Revue around Texas. And Brown saw to it that in 1971 her first single hit the market: »Wheels Of Life / Just Won't Do Right« (King # 6373). Together with Vicki Anderson and Marva Whitney she was one of those female singers who were supported by Brown and eventually brought into a recording studio. (Lyn Collins later asked Marva Whitney to sing backing vocals on her 2006 CD »Mama Feelgood«.)

From JET-magazine, February 3, 1972
In 1971, Lyn Collins shared the stage with the »The Soul Twins« (see photo above) on 330 days (!) of the year as backing vocal-trio in the James Brown Stage Show. They had a solo-spot in the show – similar to The Ikettes in the Ike & Turner Revue –, and Sharryn Watts wrote in mid-January 1972 about a concert of the James Brown Stage Show she had attended in San Francisco:
»Third on the show after the J-B's were Lynn [!] Collins and the Soul Twins. The trio, though, practically unknown, is exceptionally good. ... Every song is superb, however it's on their last number ... that they really open up and leave the crowd screaming for more. This is one of the groups Mr. Brown is personally pushing and we should be hearing from them on their first album in the near future.« (quoted in N. George / A. Leeds [eds.]: The James Brown Reader, London 2008, p. 96)
In any case, Lyn Collins was not to remain »practically unknown« for long. She had several singles and two LPs out in 1972, on JB's People label. In addition, she can be heard on several Polydor-recordings of James Brown himself. The first song of her first album of the same title – »Think (About It)« from the People LP # PE-5602 – was to become her biggest hit ever. Her last recordings for People were made in 1975.

The song »Think (About It)« was often qualified »gospel-soul«. I am not sure if that's the right way to put it ... it could be said of the »preaching« intro, maybe, and you can hear Lyn Collins do a similar intro in a number of other songs, earning her the nick-name of »The Female Preacher« and frequently hoarse vocal cords during her performances. But the intro is just a part of the whole song, and the song in itself is pure heavy funk. However, the forceful message of the intro, belted out by Lyn, much reminds of Aretha Franklin's »Respect«, although Lyn's message is still more determined: Men, be warned! The women might just take into their own hands what they can do better by themselves anyway ... So, if there's no gospel here, we certainly get a stern lecture!

Following the intro, the song is as James-Brownish as anything you will ever hear. No surprise, though, because JB produced the LP and can be heard calling out occasionally in the background. And the song is a dead-sure footstomper and a neck twister if ever there was any: »from Collins' throat-ripping vocals to the track's nasty groove to Brown's background interjections, this is a killer« wrote Tim Sendra in the All Music Guide to Soul (San Francisco 2003, p. 155). The song was recorded on April 18, 1972, at the Cavern Studios in Independence, Missouri. Some overdubs were added later in the A&R Studions in New York. HITTIT!

Hey fellas: I'm talking to you, you and you too!
You guys know who I'm talking to?
Those of you who go out and stay out all night and half the next day
And expect us to be home when you get there
And let me tell you something:
The sisters are not going for THAT no more
'Cause we realize two things:
That you aren't doing anything for us we can do better for ourselves
So from now on, we gonna use what we got
To get what we want!
Soooooooo ... you'd better THINK !

Lyn Collins: »Think (About It)« from the People LP »Think« (1972)

JET-magazine, July 27, 1972

What's in an »E«?

»You Must Be Doing Alright« (1972)

This song is the opener on the second (and, tragically, last) album of the »Raelettes / Raeletts« from 1972: Tangerine LP # TRC-1515 (Ray Charles presents The Raeletts: yesterday ... today ... tomorrow). The album was recorded at the Tangerine/APM Studios in Los Angeles.

Tangerine LP # TRC-1515
The Raelettes were, as is known to everybody but the most unaffected by the charms of r&b music, the female backing choir of Ray Charles. Over the many years of their existence (from 1955 into the 1980s) they counted many different singers among their members. The group started their career as »The Cookies«. Towards the end of November 1955 and after the success of his most recent Atlantic single »Greenbacks / Blackjack«, Ray Charles set foot into New York's Atlantic Studio for a new session. When he suggested a female backing for some songs, Jesse Stones brought the local Cookies into the studio (see Mike Evans, Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul, New York 2005, p. 78). At that time the Cookies were a trio; they had formed in Brooklyn and could even boast an Atlantic single with their name on it.

In autumn 1958 Ray Charles, who was never reluctant when it came to marketing, personalized »his« Cookies and had them called »The Raelettes« henceforward (also spelled »The Raylettes« at first). At this point, not all of the original Cookies members were left in the group. Moreover, being a »Raylette« meant, beyond the singing, getting into Ray's range on a more intimate basis, and soon the joke was born: »To be a Raylette you have to let Ray« (quoted in Evans, cit., p. 101 note).

On the back cover of the 1972 Tangerine-LP the early history of the Cookies / Raelettes is alluded to as follows:
»Yesterday there was a young musician working on the road with his band who heard a group of young ladies whose soulful sounds impressed him. The young musician was Ray Charles, and this trio of female singers became the original Raeletts. Since then, The Raeletts have become an institution in the world of music ...«
Tangerine LP # TRC-1515 (back cover)
The »trio of female singers« to become the Raeletts were, as said above, the Cookies when Ray met them for the first time in November 1955. However, for all we know, Ray neither did »discover« the group, as the text suggests, nor did he hear the group while »working on the road« but they were brought to him into the studio. And none of this former group can be heard on the 1972 album! On the contrary, the five singers to feature on the LP are not even presented by name, although they are pictured on the front and back cover. Instead they are collectively called »The Raeletts of Today«. The group at this point consisted of Mable John, Susaye Green, Vernita Moss, Estella Yarborough and Dorothy Berry. Mable John was the most prominent among them, having had a solo career with Tamla-Motown (»Actions Speak Louder Than Words«) and Stax (»Your Good Thing Is About To End«, r&b # 06). I will return to the complex history of the Raelettes in another post.

Suffice it for the moment to say that the Raelettes appear on the cover of the 1972 LP as »The Raeletts«. On other records of the epoch and in contemporary ads we also find »The Raelettes« or »The Raelets«, not to mention the earlier spelling »The Raylettes«. The different spellings have confounded many and are a nuisance for everyone researching their history. What is more, on the actual disc-label the group is billed as »Raelettes«, whereas on the front and back cover of the Tangerine LP they appear as »Raeletts«. What's in an »e«? Well, I presume some rights issue. We find a hint on the back cover of the LP where we read: »The name The Raeletts is an exclusive property of Ray Charles Enterprises, Inc.« So, probably, »The Raelettes« wasn't. But this is just guesswork. I'm not enough of a legal expert to judge the importance of leaving out an »e« when it comes to »exclusive« property.

Enough of that! Here is the song, penned by Tangerine housewriter Dee Ervin. It kicks off with a playful dialogue between Ray (on piano) and Mable (singing lead). It's a cool and groovy tune, no doubt about it. Superb harmony singing all the way. Few could ever do it like the Raelettes could. The song tells of a woman, actually has this woman speaking out, who with much tongue-in-cheek irony confronts her man: You don't care for me any longer and stay with other women ... so you must be doin' alright? ... You don't remember me, ain't even called me in quite a few days! ... You must be, you must be ... doin' okay?

The Raelettes feat. Ray Charles: »You Must Be Doing Alright« from the Tangerine LP 1515 (1972)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Fragile Dream

The events that unfolded during the last weeks in the Middle East have changed history: Two Arabic countries abolished their repressive political systems by a people's revolution and now are on their difficult path to democracy. We must hope that they succeed. The recent development of Tunisia seems promising, the newly acquired liberty of Egypt stands on knife's edge. The peoples of both countries are living a fragile dream.

In other Arabic countries, Yemen and Bahrain in particular, turmoil has set in as well, with no predictable outcome as yet. And the situation in Libya is meanwhile completely out of control. What started as an unrest on the streets of major Libyan cities has changed into civil war.

We are witnessing stormy times. Bad times for a blog, though.

Charles Ganimian & His Oriental Music: »Come With Me to the Casbah«, from the Atco LP 33-107 (Come With Me to the Casbah), recorded November 28, 1958, and released in 1959: