Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Beach Boys: All Summer Long

The Beach Boys were the one band that could rival the commercial and artistic greatness of the Beatles during the Sixties. The two bands would become friendly rivals in that decade, trying to outdo each other in the studio by producing the most original and epic albums possible. This rivalry would produce the best works of both bands, including the Beach Boys classic, “Pet Sounds,” which is considered by many as the greatest pop/rock album of all time.

The Beach Boys were all native Californians and they would, in their early incarnation produce music which glorified the beachside lifestyle of surfing and hot rod racing particular to their home state.

The original Beach Boys lineup consisted of the Wilsonbrothers-Brian, Carl and Dennis, with cousin, Mike Love and friend, Al Jardine. Brian Wilson was the chief songwriter and creator of the Beach Boys image, while Dennis Wilson, the drummer and part-time surfer was the real life incarnation of that image.

They formed in Hawthorne,California in 1961 under the management and tutelage of Murray Wilson, father of the three Wilson brothers. Murray Wilson was a tough task master and ruled the band with an iron fist.

Originally called the Pendeltones, the band recorded their first single, “Surfin’,” for the Candix label in late 1961. When Candix released the single they changed the groups name to Beach Boys to make the band more marketable in the emerging surf music genre. The single became a modest nation-wide hit. Based on the success of the single, Murray Wilson was able to arrange a live appearance for the band at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance in Long Beach, California.

By summer 1962, the band had managed to get signed to Capitol records and released their first album, “Surfin’ Safari.”Starting with this album, the band found success, scoring a string of hits including, “Surfin’ Safari,” Surfing USA,” “Surfer Girl,” “409,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” The band would record sixteen hit singles in total from 1962-1965, and they become huge pop stars in America and abroad.

Along with hit records came concert tours, and the stress of touring led to an emotional breakdown for Brian Wilson and his withdrawal from live performing. Future country music star, Glen Campbell, was brought in as a replacement for several months, and then Bruce Johnson. Brian Wilson, freed from his touring duties, started to focus on his songwriting and the possibilities of the studio and record production and would begin working on music which would soon be hailed as among the greatest pop music ever recorded.

By 1964, Brian Wilson’s more adventurous compositions demanded talented studio musicians for recordings. Two songs from this period, “Help Me Rhonda” and “I Get Around,” would become the band’s first two number one hits. In 1965, Brian Wilson would begin to experiment with song structure on the “Today” album, and score hits with the unorthodox songs,“California Girls” and “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” The revolutionary use of silence, keyboards and brass on the latter tune would set the stage for the band’s next phase, one free of beach imagery and more in step with the burgeoning hippie movement.

1966 would see the Beach Boys, led by Brian Wilson; fully embrace baroque rock with the classic album, “Pet Sounds,” and the seminal single, “Good Vibrations.” Brian Wilson would employ surreal songs, classical instrumentation and complex arrangements in the production of this music.

When Brian Wilson heard the Beatles’ album,“Rubber Soul,” in late 1965, he was so impressed that he dedicated himself to outdoing them. He was impressed that Rubber Soul broke the mold of containing a few hits only to be filled out by throwaway material. Rubber Soul did not contain any filler, just great original tunes. With Rubber Soul as his inspiration, Wilsonset off to the studio with the intention of making the greatest rock album of all-time. Many claim that he succeeded in doing just that, as the resulting album, “Pet Sounds” (1966), is widely hailed as one of the greatest-ever albums of pop music.

Pet Sounds was full of sounds previously unheard on rock records before it. It featured a slew of instruments manned by the finest studio musicians in Los Angeles, complex vocal and instrumental arrangements, and more sophisticated songs from Wilson. Wilson’s muse, apparently, was partially fueled by psychedelic drugs. The album contains what is perhaps the Beach Boys’finest ever tune, “God Only Knows,” which was a hit. Other hits on the album included “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and “Caroline No.”

Wilson continued to experiment in 1966, producing the groundbreaking single, “Good Vibrations” and the legendary album, “Smile.” The lukewarm reaction of the public to Pet Sounds, drug use, and underlying mental health problems led to the Smile album being shelved by Capitol records. Some of the material appeared on the next Beach Boys release, “Smiley Smile.”

The Beach Boys would undergo several lineup changes and continue to produce music throughout the rest of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Depending on the state of Brian Wilson’s mind, the Beach Boys’music varied from mediocre to brilliant. Among the brilliant moments were the albums, “Wild Honey” (1967), “Friends” (1968), “Surf’s Up” (1971), “Sunflower”(1970), and “Holland”(1973).

The Beach Boys on The Ed Sullivan Show-mid Sixties

Friday, August 29, 2014

Elvis Presley: History and Album Guide

Elvis Presley will forever be known as simply, “The King,” to his legions of fans. His title is not only acknowledged by his fans, but by the broader public as well, as Presley must be recognized as the figure most responsible for the popularization of rock and roll music.

Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. In his teens, he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, where at the age of eighteen, he decided to visit Sam Phillip’s Sun Records ostensibly to record some songs as a birthday present for his mother. His recordings of those songs, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” were considered so good by Phillips that he invited Presley to return at a later date to try some more recordings. Phillips had long been seeking a white singer who could sing in a black style, and the young Presley, who had grown up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Tupelo, seemed to be a good candidate.

 On June 5, 1954, Presley returned to Sun Records. Phillips had invited two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to join Presley on a recording session. That session did not start well, and the musicians were ready to give up when Presley picked up his guitar and began belting out a rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” Moore and Black joined in, and Phillips exclaimed that this was the sound he had been looking for. Philips asked the musicians to start again from the beginning and recorded the performance.

Three days later, Phillips sent the recording to a Memphis DJ, Dewey Philips, who played it on his radio show. Listeners began to call the radio station to ask about this new singer, Elvis Presley. Philips played the song repeatedly and eventually had Presley come to the radio station for an on-air interview. Philips asked Presley to identify his high school as clarification that he was indeed white, and not black, as many of the listeners had assumed.

A few days later, Presley was back in the Sun studios with Moore and Black to cut their version of the bluegrass standard, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Sun Records released a single with “That’s All Right Mama” on one side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the other.

Soon the trio began performing live shows during which Presley would shake his legs and hips wildly in part as a response to the rhythm and partly due to nervousness. As Presley moved, young women in the audience would scream with delight. Moore and Black quit their regular bands to work with Presley full-time.

In the fall of 1954, the trio was invited to appear on the Shreveport, Louisiana radio program, “The Louisiana Hayride,” which was widely broadcast in The South. The trio’s appearance made an indelible impression on all who heard it and Elvis and his band were invited back to perform as regular Saturday night guests. By early 1955, Presley and his band had become famous throughout much of the South. Presley’s music, which blended white country music and black rhythm and blues, would become known as “rockabilly’, and later, simply, “rock and roll”.

By mid-1955, the trio’s manager, Bob Neal, brought in Colonel Tom Parker as a special advisor in the management of the fortunes of Presley and the trio. Parker would later become a notorious figure in Presley’s life for his mismanagement of Presley’s affairs. Drummer D.J. Fontana, who had appeared with the trio on the Louisiana Hayride program, would make the trio a quartet when he joined them in the fall of 1955. Several record companies had begun to make overtures to Presley and Parker and Sam Philips arranged the transfer of Presley’s Sun Records contract to RCA for the unprecedented sum of 40, 000 dollars.

By December of 1955, RCA began to heavily promote their 20-year-old acquisition and began to reissue many of the recordings of Presley and the trio from Sun. Those recordings can be found on the legendary album, “The Sun Sessions” (1976). In January, 1956, RCA arranged recording sessions for Presley and his band, Moore, Black and Fontana. The recording sessions would be bolstered by the addition of legendary session players, guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer, and the vocal band, the Jordanires. This assemblage cut Presley’s first RCA hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” as well as a version of Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and eight other songs. In February, one of Presley’s Sun recordings, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”reached No. 1 on the Billboard country music charts. By March, Col. Tom Parker had taken full control of Presley’s management.

Presley’s first album, “Elvis Presley,”would be released in March. It would become the first rock and roll album to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts. The album featured five previously unreleased Sun tracks and covers of songs by Little Richard, Ray Charles and The Drifters. Elvis was the first white singer to cover songs by black singers without making the songs sound “white.” He also made the guitar, not the piano, the lead instrument on all the cover songs. The album’s famous cover photo of Presley holding his guitar during a performance would do much to position that instrument as the focus of this new music, rock and roll.

In April, Presley would appear on the nation-wide Milton Berle show and gain nationwide fame. Another appearance on that show in June would spawn national controversy as a result of Presley’s seemingly indecent movements during his performance of Big Mama Thornton’s“Hound Dog.” Many started to refer to Presley in derogatory terms in the wake of the controversy.

Presley’s appearance on the Milton Berle show led to further appearances on the Steve Allen Show and most significantly, The Ed Sullivan Show. Presley was paid the unheard of sum of 50,000 dollars for three appearances on the Sullivan show in 1956. His appearances on the Sullivan show resulted in a level of adoration unseen in music since the rise of Frank Sinatra, a decade earlier. Presley soon signed a movie deal with Paramount Pictures, and his first movie, “Love Me Tender, was released in November of 1956.

Presley’s second album, “Elvis,” was released in October of 1956. “Elvis” would quickly rise to the top position on the album charts. The album featured more rockabilly material very much in the vein of his debut, but also contained ballads, including a fine version of “Old Shep” with Presley accompanying himself on piano.

By early 1957, Presley had achieved international fame with singles such as “Teddy Bear,” “All Shook Up,” and “Too Much” all becoming number one hits early that year. Another massive hit, “Love Me Tender,” from the movie of the same name, would follow shortly thereafter. Later that year, Presley had made enough money from his music and appearances to purchase a Memphis mansion for himself and his parents which would later be dubbed, “Graceland.”

Presley albums from 1957 and 1958 include,“Loving You,” “Elvis’s Christmas Album,” and the excellent soundtrack from his movie, “King Creole.”

Presley was drafted into the US Army in 1958, and served two years, initially in Arkansas, and later in Germany. During the Arkansas phase of his military duty, Presley’s mother, with whom he was extremely close, died, leaving him devastated. While in Germany for the next phase of his military duty, Presley met his future wife, Priscilla.

Presley was released from his army duties in March, 1960, and he wasted no time in recording the album, “Elvis is Back.”The album was a brilliant return to the rocking music of his first two RCA releases. The album also featured two ballads that would become huge hits, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never.”

1960 saw the release of the soundtrack to his movie, “GI Blues,” and his first album of gospel music, “His Hand in Mine.”For the next seven years, Presley would focus on his career in movies, and his music would suffer. He would begin to drift away from rock and roll and toward the realm of mainstream pop. Almost all of his soundtrack albums from this period, save “Roustabout,” perhaps, are forgettable. He did record another fine gospel album during this time, however, with “How Great Thou Art.” The album contained another hit, the beautifully rendered, “Crying in the Chapel.”

In 1968, Presley would mount yet another comeback and return again to his roots. The years of making mediocre movies and mediocre music to accompany them had alienated many of his fans, and the music he was instrumental in creating, rock and roll, was now dominated by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rumors had begun to circulate that Presley could no longer sing in a live setting, so it was high time for Presley to perform in a large-scale, live context.

The 1968 television special and accompanying album would prove to all that Elvis still “had it.” The album featured excellent material including “Trouble,” “Guitar Man,” and a medley of his earliest RCA hits from 1956. On the song, “If I Can Dream,” Presley belted one of his best-ever vocal performances, laying waste to the aforementioned rumors about his singing.

Soon, Presley would be back in the studio to record the album, “From Elvis in Memphis”(1969), which many critics believe to be his best ever. The album features the huge hits, “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” which would become two of the last big hits Presley would record. The album also featured inspired versions of several cover tunes.

Presley would record several other fine albums in the wake of his comeback including, “From Memphis to Vegas” (1969),“That’s the Way It Is” (1970), “Elvis Now” (1972), another gospel offering, “He Touched Me” (1972), “Promised Land” (1975), “Today” (1975), and “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” (1976).

In 1977, Presley recorded the final album of his lifetime, “Moody Blue.” The album was a solid effort and spawned two hits, “Way Down,” and the title track.

Presley died in his home, Graceland, in Memphis, in of the summer 1977, of a heart attack apparently brought on by years of prescription medicine abuse.

Elvis with Bill Haley

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Band: HIstory and Album Guide

The Band never achieved the fame of legendary rock bands such as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but in the opinion of critics and fellow musicians, they were one of the greatest bands to ever play rock music. The music of the Band was an amalgam of diverse traditional American styles such as country blues, electric blues, gospel, R&B, and country music fused with rock and roll.

Among roots rock bands, the Band likely employed the greatest number of influences. They became known as purveyors of “Americana” despite the fact that this group was 80% Canadian. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, and organist Garth Hudson all hailed from Southern Ontario in Canada. Drummer Levon Helm, the sole American member, was a native of Arkansas.

When Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins moved north to Toronto in the late Fifties with Levon Helm in tow, events were taking shape which would lead to the creation of the Band. Once settled, Hawkins began to recruit local musicians to flesh out his band, the “Hawks.” Future members of the Band, Robertson, Danko, Hudson, and Manuel joined the ranks of the Hawks. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks toured North America and recorded throughout the early sixties until the Hawks decided to leave their leader behind. The Hawks, minus Ronnie Hawkins, continued to tour and recorded and gained a reputation as a great bar and club band.

During the mid-Sixties, the Hawks made their first recordings without Hawkins under the names, the “Hawks” and the “Canadian Squires,” laying down superb rockabilly on the singles, “Leave Me Alone,” and “Uh-Uh-Uh,” and folk rock with “The Stones I Throw.” These singles are available on the superb Band retrospective, “A Musical History” (2005).

By the mid-Sixties, the Hawks were ready for a new challenge, and an opportunity soon presented itself. Bob Dylan had recently “gone electric” and needed a band to support him on an upcoming tour. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman had been informed by his Toronto-based secretary that the Hawks would be a good fit for Dylan. Grossman arranged a meeting between Dylan and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson. Dylan and Robertson hit it off, and soon the Hawks were Dylan’s new rock band. The Hawks embarked on a tour of Europe with Dylan which was filled with stadiums of surly fans who resented Dylan for abandoning folk music for rock. The Hawks were vilified by many of Dylan’s fans as accomplices in this unforgivable crime.

Following the tour, Dylan and the Hawks took up residence in the bucolic arts community, Woodstock, New York, in a pink house which would become famous as “Big Pink”. Dylan and the Hawks wrote and played new material together in the basement of Big Pink and recorded their creations on primitive reel to reel tape. These recordings would be released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes.” Some critics hailed the release as one of the greatest albums of American popular music.

Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel were also busy writing songs during the Big Pink stay, and in 1968, the Hawks, now dubbed, “The Band,” recorded their first album, “Music from Big Pink.” The album was a modest commercial success and yielded a minor hit, “The Weight,” but it met with critical raves for its variety, originality, and rustic charm. The Band followed it up with the release of perhaps their best album, “The Band,” the following year. This album was even more rustic than the debut and featured tremendous songs by Robbie Robertson including, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Robertson wrote almost all the material on “The Band” and had begun to wrest creative control of the group.

Throughout the early and mid-Sixties, The Band continued to release solid albums, but they never again reached the artistic heights they achieved on the first two releases. “Stagefright” (1970), their third album, featured the minor hits, “The Shape I’m in” and the title track, “Stagefright.” “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” (1975), “Moondog Matinee” (1973), “Cahoots” (1971), and “Islands” (1977) all have fine moments and are worthy of the Band’s reputation. “Rock of Ages” (1972) is a fine double album of live material culled from The Band’s 1974 tour. Bob Dylan’s album, “The Basement Tapes” (1975), is a collection of the recordings he made with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, and includes several excellent tracks of The Band without Bob Dylan.

In 1976, The Band decided to give their final concert and retire from touring. Their final concert took place at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco, and Martin Scorsese filmed the proceedings as part of his film tribute to the Band, “The Last Waltz.” The soundtrack from the film is an outstanding collection of music from The Band and their many special guests including Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan.

The Band-1969

Monday, August 25, 2014

Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin was one of the first hard rock supergroups, and a band which enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the hard rock arena. The band came together from the ashes of the last incarnation of the Yardbirds, which featured the young guitar hero, Jimmy Page. Page teamed up with bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, but the new band needed a lead singer to round out its line-up. Terry Reid was considered at first, but when he proved to be unavailable, Robert Plant was brought in.

The new band was initially called, “The New Yardbirds,” but changed their name to “Led Zeppelin” as a response to one observer who predicted their doom by stating, “They’ll go down like a lead balloon.” Like most other early hard rock bands, Zeppelin had a solid grounding in the electric blues of Chicago, especially where Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf were concerned.

The band’s debut album, “Led Zeppelin” (1968), clearly revealed that influence as the band recorded revolutionary takes on a number of Chess standards such as “You Shook Me,” “I Can't Quit You,” and “How Many More Times” with over-amplified bass, guitar and drums and the banshee-like vocals of Robert Plant. The album remains today one of the all-time classics of hard rock.

Their next effort, the superb “Led Zeppelin 2” (1969), contained fewer covers and moved more toward a mainstream hard rock sound with classic tracks such as “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Ramble On.” Their third release, “Led Zeppelin 3” (1970), was a more eclectic affair featuring several acoustic performances by Page and the hard-driving, “Immigrant Song.”

The band’s next release, “Led Zeppelin 4” (1971), would ultimately become their masterpiece due in large part to the presence of one of the most popular rock tracks ever, “Stairway to Heaven.” In addition to this hard rock anthem, there were other gems such as the folk-rock of “The Battle of Evermore,” featuring a vocal duet between Plant and former Fairport Convention lead singer, Sandy Denny. This album remains one of the best-selling and most-praised rock albums in history.

The first Led Zeppelin album to actually bear a proper title, “Houses of the Holy” (1973), followed next. It was yet another outstanding offering, containing the standout tracks, “The Song Remains the Same,” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The double album, “Physical Graffiti,” was next and continued Led Zeppelin’s almost unprecedented run of fine albums. Another diverse release, the album contained the epic track, “Kashmir.”

The very solid, “Presence,” was released in 1976, followed by the somewhat disappointing, “In Through the Out Door,” in 1979. An excellent live album of material from the Seventies, “How the West was Won,” would appear out of the blue in 2003.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String Guitar

Blind Willie McTell was a country blues singer/guitarist and probably the greatest performer of the Piedmont style of blues playing. He also played ragtime music. McTell was born blind as William Samuel McTier, in Thomson, Georgia, in 1898.

McTell learned to read and write music from Braille, and acquired a six-string guitar in his early teens. He was born into a musical family, and is a relation of gospel music pioneer, Thomas A. Dorsey. When his mother died during the Twenties, the now parentless McTell began wandering The South. He wound up in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1927, and scored a recording contract with Victor Records. He would remain in Atlanta and record for several record companies.

McTell’s best known song is “Statesboro Blues,” which was recorded by the Allman Brothers Band. The White Stripes have recorded two of his tunes, “Southern Can Mama” and “Lord, Send Me an Angel.”

McTell’s albums, “Atlanta Twelve String: Blues Originals Vol. 1” (1972), “The Definitive Blind Willie McTell” (1994), and “King of Georgia Blues” (2007) are all essential listening.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Matchbox Blues

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Coutchman, Texas, in 1893. He was an enormously influential country blues singer whose songs have been covered by rock performers as diverse as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Dylan recorded Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” on his debut album, while Beatles and others, recorded rocking versions of his “Matchbox Blues.”

After traveling around Texas with the legendary folk and blues singer, Leadbelly, Jefferson wound up in Chicago in the mid-Twenties. He secured a recording contract with Paramount Records and began laying down classic sides. Jefferson’s recordings proved for posterity that he was, in fact, one of the best singers and guitarists of early country blues.

Jefferson was a fast picking guitarist of tremendous facility, and he played in a wide variety of styles. Jefferseon’s recordings seldom become tiresome as is the case with many other country blues singers. Jefferson’s recorded classics include, “Hot Dogs,” “Jack O’ Diamonds Blues,” “Black Snake Moan,” and “Easy Rider Blues.” He was one of the first male blues singers to record solo with his own guitar accompaniment.

Jefferson died of exposure when he became lost in Chicago in December, 1929 during a bad snowstorm. Several fine compilations of Jefferson’s recordings are available including, “King of the Country Blues” (1985), “Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order” (Volumes 1-4) (1991), “The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson” (2000), and “Classic Sides” (2003).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Blind Willie Johnson: Praise God I’m Satisfied

Blind Willie Johnson was born near Brenham, Texas, in 1897. Johnson is one of the greatest guitarists in the history of blues music and likely the greatest slide-guitarist in the country blues genre. Johnson is considered a gospel performer by many, as most of his recordings were of a religious nature.

Johnson was not blind from birth. It is not entirely clear how he lost his sight, but it has been suggested that his step-mother threw lye in his eyes to exact revenge on his father.

Johnson began singing on street corners for tips as a youth. He continued busking for many years when this was apparently his only source of income. He busked in several Texas cities, but it seems he spent most of his time in the Texan town, Beaumont. Johnson only made 30 commercial recordings in his lifetime. These recordings were made for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930.

Fortunately, Johnson recorded after the advent of microphones and his recordings are of high-fidelity. Among his best known sides are: ”God Moves on the Water,” about the sinking of the Titanic, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” which was recorded by Led Zeppelin, “Motherless Children,” which was recorded by Eric Clapton, and “John the Revelator” which has been recorded by many.

Johnson was poor throughout his life, and it was his status as an African-American resident of the American South that contributed to his early demise. After his house was destroyed by fire, Johnson, with no place to go, was forced to sleep in its scorched remains. He contracted malarial fever, and when his wife brought him to hospital, he was refused admittance, likely because he was black. Without treatment he succumbed to the fever on September 18, 1945.

Of several fine compilations of Johnson’s music, “Praise God I’m Satisfied” (1977), “Sweeter as the Years Go By” (1990), and “The Complete Blind Willie Johnson” (1993) are the best.

Blind Willie

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Allman Brothers: Midnight Riders

Southern rock and blues rock legends The Allman Brothers were formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1969. The band was named after brothers Greg and Duane Allman, the band’s lead singer and lead guitarist, respectively. The Allman Brothers are perhaps the quintessential example of “Southern Rock.”

Southern rock bands such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynard, and the Marshall Tucker Band all hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line and infused their hard rock with elements of the blues and country music and often expressed the conservative or “redneck” outlooks.

The Allman Brothers were perhaps the most blues-influenced of southern rock bands. Their first two albums, “The Allman Brothers Band” (1968) and “Idlewild South” (1970) contained several blues cover tunes each. The ragged, soulful voice of Greg Allman and bluesy slide guitar of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts enabled the band to produce some of the best blues rock of the era.

The Allman Brothers Band was a tremendous live act, and live performances allowed the band’s instrumental highlight, Duane Allman to display his prodigious slide guitar technique. Two of the band’s finest albums, “Live at the Fillmore East” (1971) and “Eat a Peach” (1972) are live albums which feature long tracks which serve as vehicles for Duane Allman’s and Dickie Betts’ impressive chops.

Duane Allman died tragically in a motorcycle accident in 1971 at the age of 23.

Following the death of Duane Allman, Dickie Betts became the instrumental centerpiece of the band, and the Allman Brothers Band continued to record and tour. The band reached the height of their commercial success with the classic album, “Brothers and Sisters” which featured two of their best known tunes, “Ramblin’ Man” and the instrumental, “Jessica.”
Greg Allman in 1975

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Ink Spots: Gypsy

The Ink Spots were a hugely-influential jazz vocal group that forms a direct link from the jazz and popular music of the Thirties to the R&B music of the Forties and rock and roll of the Fifties. The group consisted of various members during a lengthy 20-year run, but the vocal lead was usually handled by singer Bill Kenny on most of the group’s recordings.

The original Ink Spots came together in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1933, with members Orville Jones, Ivory “Deeks” Watson, Jerry Daniels, and Charlie Fuqua. Bill Kenny joined the fold in 1936.

The group made their first recordings for Victor, in 1935, with versions of “Swingin’ on Strings” and “You’re Feets Too Big,” the Fats Waller song.

The early singles of the Ink Spots sold surprisingly poorly, but the group scored a huge hit in 1939 with the song, “If I Didn’t Care.” The single sold 19 million copies and featured the Ink Spots signature “top and bottom” style in which Bill Kenny sang the lead and Orville Jones performed the “talking bass” below the lead vocal.

During the Forties, the Ink Spots scored a slew of hits including many that hit the top position on the pop charts. Of these hits, “Gypsy” proved to be the biggest, remaining at the top of the charts for 13 weeks.

The original Ink Spots disbanded in 1953, just before the dawn of the rock and roll era. Many groups adopted the name, “Ink Spots,” and claimed kinship to the original group.

The original Ink Spots recordings are best heard via the following collections: “The Best of the Ink Spots” (1955), “The Best of the Ink Spots” (1965), “The Ink Spots in Hi-Fi” (1967), and “The Anthology” (1998).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul

Isaac Hayes had a long career as a soul songwriter and session musician prior to the launch of his own solo career in the early Seventies. Hayes was born in Covington, Tennessee, in 1942.

Hayes began his professional career as part of the Stax Records songwriting team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes that produced soul hits for Stax Records’ legendary roster of singers. The songs that Hayes and Porter produced for Stax include, “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas, “I've Got to Love Somebody’s Baby” by Johnnie Taylor, and “Hold On! I'm Coming!” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “Soul Man,” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” by Sam and Dave.

Hayes recorded his first solo album, “Presenting Isaac Hayes,” in 1967. The album contained pleasant soul numbers, but it was a tame effort compared to what was to come. When Atlantic Records bought out the Stax Records catalogue in 1968, Hayes was under pressure to write and record new material to replace what had been lost. He hurled himself into the task and while producing material for other artists, he also came up with the material for his brilliant sophomore album, “Hot Buttered Soul,” one of the greatest soul albums ever recorded.

The album contained four superb tracks-all of which clocked in at least five minutes. Covers of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I get to Phoenix” ran at 12 minutes and 18 and a half minutes, respectively. Hayes’ extended takes on these songs transcended the originals with their dreamy instrumental passages.

Hayes recorded two more fine albums in 1970, “The Isaac Hayes Movement” and “…To Be Continued.” Hayes’ excellent soundtrack for the film, “Shaft,” would appear in 1971 with the title track becoming a hit. Another quality Hayes album, “Black Moses,” would be released in 1971, featuring lush string accompaniments to soulful songs such as a cover of another Bacharach song, “Close to You,” and a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Man’s Temptation.”

Hayes would continue to record throughout the Seventies and sporadically in the Eighties with lesser results. Hayes died in 2008 having achieved the status of a master among soul music figures.
The man in chains

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours

Prior to the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley and rock and roll, Frank Sinatra was the biggest male singing phenomenon that popular music had ever seen. Sinatra’s rise to prominence was accompanied by the same female hysteria that would be heard with the rise of Presley and The Beatles in later decades.

Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1915. He got his start as a big band jazz vocalist with the Harry James Orchestra in 1939. His first recording with James was “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Sinatra would stay with James for about one year and record other sides such as “Here Comes the Night” and “My Buddy.” In 1940, Tommy Dorsey lured Sinatra away from James, and it was with Dorsey that Sinatra would find stardom. Sinatra’s first recording with Dorsey was, “The Sky Fell Down.” Sinatra would stay with Dorsey for five years and record dozens of hit singles including, “Stardust,” “It’s Always You,” “Blue Skies,” and “Embraceable You.”

By the time Sinatra left the Dorsey Orchestra, he was already a pop star and was ready to move on to recordings and performances with himself getting top billing. Sinatra continued to record scads of hit songs throughout the mid-late Forties and early Fifties and branch out as an entertainer by acting in movies. He eventually formed the infamous “rat pack” with show business cronies, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

By the mid-Fifties, when rock and roll was beginning to replace swing and vocal jazz as America’s new pop music, Sinatra openly railed against the new music for being primitive and crude causing Elvis Presley to publically express his dismay at the comments.

Sinatra would begin to record his own albums in 1945, with his first notable effort being “The Voice of Frank Sinatra” (1946) on Columbia Records with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Several albums would follow, and then in 1954, Sinatra would record his first

classic album, “Songs for Young Lovers” The following year Sinatra would record the album that is generally cited as his masterpiece, “In the Wee Small Hours” in which Sinatra delivers sixteen songs of heartbreak in inimitable style.

Numerous other essential albums would follow for the next twenty years with the best being, “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” (1956), “A Swingin’ Affair” (1957), “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” (1958), “September of My Years” (1965), and “Sinatra at the Sands” (1966).
Sinatra on the town

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fletcher Henderson: Sugarfoot Stomp

Fletcher Henderson was a jazz pianist and bandleader born in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1897. Henderson was the leader of one of the best African-American jazz bands of the Twenties.

Henderson was born to a middle-class family that stressed education, and Henderson would go on to earn a degree in chemistry from Atlanta University. When he moved to New York in 1920, he was rejected by employers in the chemistry field due to his colour. He went to work for W.C. Handy’s music publishing company and then became a manager at the Black Swan recording label.

In 1922, Henderson led a band at a club which would become the legendary Roseland Ballroom. Henderson and his band, which would later become known as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, would stay on at the Roseland for ten years. Henderson’s Orchestra featured some of the best musicians in jazz and included at various times, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, and other stars. With stellar members like Hawkins and Armstrong, the Henderson Orchestra made some of the finest sides of jazz in the Twenties including, “Sugar Foot Stomp,” “Shanghai Shuffle,” “Jim Town Blues,” “Christopher Columbus,” “Stealin’ Apples,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Stampede.”

The orchestra continued to tour and record until 1939 when Henderson joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra as the pianist and arranger. The hiring of Henderson by Goodman was a watershed moment in Jazz, as it was the first time that a white band had hired a black musician as arranger. Henderson’s participation would help secure Goodman’s reputation as the “King of Swing,” a music which Henderson had pioneered with his work with his own orchestra years before.

Henderson died in 1952, following several years with heart problems. The classic sides of the Henderson Orchestra can be fairly easily found on several compilations of the band’s work, and on compilations of classic early jazz, including the series, “The Chronological Classics: Fletcher Henderson.” (1996).