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A History of Country Vol. 1: Pioneer Years – 1920s

July 29th, 2010 14 comments

This is the first of a series  aimed at providing a brief history of country music (all accompanied by an appropriate CD-sized mix). I hope it will not only inform those who have an interest in the genre, but also persuade those who resist becoming acquainted with country music to give it a chance, perhaps weakening resistance and preconceived notions which might be reduced to the stereoptypes of Confederation flags and the jargons of Hicksville. Of course it is very possible to dislike the sound of the steel guitar, the banjo, the fiddle or the yodel.

But is country all that? I would propose that country is so broad a genre that it is nearly impossible to claim to hate all of it. I hope the mixes I have prepared for each chapter will illustrate the range of country music; perhaps even help convert some sceptics. I also hope that the country fan will find things to enjoy in these mixes, even though I have tried to concentrate on music that would be representative of the era covered in the text. Even so, some of the older recordings are fairly difficult to find, I think. Special thanks to reader Rick for sourcing a couple of particularly difficult-to-find tracks.

I have consulted many sources, but I should single out two: the exquisitely compiled and illustrated book Country Music: The Complete Visual History, edited by Paul Kingsbury & Alannah Nash, and Roughstock’s History of Country Music. The Roughstock takes a different approach to the one I take here, so the histories are, I hope, complementary. Where I commit errors, I apologise. Where I emphasise one fact and omit another, feel free to share your insights in the comments section (and, of course, everybody who reads this is urged to leave a comment; even if it is a three-word feedback). And so to part 1, covering the early years before the Great Depression hit.


For the first few decades of its recorded history, country music was not even called that. Alternately, it was called things like Old Familiar Music, Hillbilly or folk, but the term “country” did not find any currency until the late 1940s. Whatever it was called and however one may define it, country music has its roots in the rural Southern Appalachian folk songs — the so-called broadside ballads, which geographical isolation had preserved for decades and even centuries — and in the minstrel shows which brought black music to white folks through the visual medium of blackface. It has its roots in the Christian revivalism of Billy Sunday (read up his story; it’s quite amazing) and Dwight Moody, in Calvinist church music, and in the gospel of the cotton fields. It has its roots in the French square dance, the quadrilles. It has its roots in the songs sung by cowboys, whose mobile lifestyle encouraged the use of small musical instruments, such as the mouth harmonica and the fiddle. And it has its roots in the popular music produced in urban New York’s Tin Pan Alley, whose songs travelled south via vaudeville shows. (For a fine series on country’s early roots, visit the River’s Invitation blog)

From the start, country was located in the South, with its socially inflexible but culturally promiscuous racial barriers. The fiddle and banjo, for example, were initially instruments of black music, though the banjo, an African instrument brought to America by slaves, was innovated on by whites to give it its present five-string form. The blues had a profound effect on country (in the 1920s and ’30s, many country songs incorporated the term blues in their titles). That, of course, did not inhibit the occasional incidence of coarse racism in country music. So it was not peculiar that the hugely popular and very influential string band Gid Tannen and the Skillet Lickers should release songs with regrettable titles like Run Nigger Run.

Still, forgotten black blues musicians such as Arnold Shultz and Rufus Payne had a huge influence on the development of country. Shultz, a fiddler and guitarist taught the future bluegrass legend Bill Monroe (I’ve heard rumours of Shultz recordings existing; but it seems that these are just a myth) and influenced the famous finger-picking guitar style of Merle Travis, while Hank Williams — perhaps country’s most pivotal figure — learned to play guitar from Payne. Bob Wills, another country pioneer with his Western Swing, incorporated the blues and jazz sounds he loved into his music. Uncle Dave Macon, meanwhile, claimed to have learned his song Rock About My Saro Jane from black stevedores along the Cumberland river in the 1880s.

The advent of accessible radio in the early 1920s was crucial in the rise of popular music, country included, as record companies started to seek new sounds. Indeed, radio was crucial in the long-term, with Nashville’s WSM Radio’s wide reach broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry shows from the city’s Ryman Auditorium almost nationwide from 1927, turning many country artists into household names even before the Opry’s syndication.

The first-ever country record was recorded on 30 June 1922 — not in a random southern location, but in New York City, at the Victor Talking Machine Company on West 38th Street. The 35-year old Texan fiddler Eck Robertson put on record several tracks, accompanied on some by Henry C Gilliland, a 70-year old Civil War veteran. After a few months, Victor chose to release Robertson’s signature song, Sally Gooden. It made no impact whatsoever, nor did the fiddler’s four follow-up releases.

The first country hit came soon after, and it was recorded in the South. In March 1922, an Atlanta radio station, WSB, invited local fiddlers and other folk string musicians — pickers — to perform in its studio. The experiment proved popular, and the star performer was Fiddlin’ John Carson. He was heard by a visiting A&R man, Ralph Peer, who three years earlier had released one of the first blues records, Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues. Peer, a key person in the development of country music, signed up Carson for the Okeh label. On 14 June 1923, in a make-shift studio on Atlanta’s Nassau Street, Carson recorded Little Old Cabin In The Lane, a minstrel song from the 1870s written by Will S Hays. Peer thought Carson’s vocals were nothing like anything he had heard before, and not in a good way. Yet, what Peer thought was “pluperfect awful” singing would provide a template for generations of country singers. The recording was a hit.

A year later, classically-trained tenor Vernon Dalhart’s The Wreck Of The Old ’97, backed with The Prisoner’s Song, became country’s first million seller. Country music was now a commercial proposition, and Dalhart was its first superstar. New stars now popped up. Uncle Jimmy Thompson, already 78 in 1925; Uncle Dave Macon, a trucker in his 50s (whose 1924 Hill Billie Blues gave the genre one of its names); Carl T Sprague, a genuine cowboy singing genuine western music; North Carolina’s Charlie Poole (country’s first celebrity death, in 1931 at 39); Riley Puckett, who was country’s first yodeller; Gid Tannen and his Skillet Lickers (of which the blind Puckett and his fiddling collaborator Clayton McMichen were also members) . And then, in 1929, the Carter Family — A.P., his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle (a later incarnation, after Sara and A.P. divorced, included wider family members, including Maybelle’s daughters June and Anita) — broke through with the lovely Wildwood Flower. Along with Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, the Carter Family would define the sound of country music.

If Dalhart was country’s first superstar, then Jimmie Rodgers was the genre’s first mega star. Discovered and signed to the Victor label by Ralph Peer (on 1 August 1927, the same day Peer signed the Carter Family), Rodgers first recorded in 1927, and found success with the Blue Yodel, which set a theme of yodelling sequels until his death at 35 in 1933. One of these yodel songs marked the first interracial country recording, 1930’s Blue Yodel No.9 with Louis Armstrong. And there was even a black country star, the harmonica, guitar and banjo virtuoso DeFord Bailey, who regularly appeared on the Opry until 1941 when he was abruptly dismissed, but whose recording career, like that of many others (including Eck Robertson)  ended with the onset of the Great Depression.

TRACKLISTING:
1. Eck Robertson – Sallie Gooden
2. Fiddlin’ John Carson – Little Old Cabin In The Lane
3. Ernest Stoneman – The Titanic
4. Vernon Dalhart – Wreck Of The Old 97
5. Charlie Poole – The Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee
6. Carl T. Sprague – O Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie
7. Uncle Jimmie Thompson – Lynchburg
8. Charlie Poole – There’ll Come A Time
9. Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers – Rock About My Saro Jane
10. Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers – Bully Of The Town
11. Vernon Dalhart – The Dying Girl
12. Ted Chesnut – He’s Only A Miner Killed In The Ground
13. Bradley Kincaid – Barbara Allen
14. Riley Puckett & Clayton McMichen – Old Molly Hare
15. Harry McClintock – Goodbye Old Paint
16. DeFord Bailey – Davidson County Blues
17. Jimmie Rodgers – Brakeman’s Blues (Blue Yodel No.2)
18. The Carter Family – Wildwood Flower
19. Tom Darby & Jimmie Tarlton – Lonesome Railroad
20. Uncle Dave Macon – Buddy, Won’t You Roll Down The Line
21. Wendell Hall – In The Big Rock Candy Mountain
22. Jimmie Rodgers – Hobo Bill’s Last Ride
23. Bentley Boys – Down On Penny’s Farm
24. Blind Alfred Reed – How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live
25. Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley – The House Carpenter

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

GET IT or HERE

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Step back to 1977 – Part 3

July 26th, 2010 4 comments

Here is part 3 of 1977, the songs that can take me back to the autumn and winter of that year.

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ABBA – The Name Of The Game.mp3
This is my favourite ABBA song, with a rather endearing video of domestic bliss via a communal game of ludo (it’s the name of the game, you see; video here). I had a bit of a crush on Agnetha. Actually, I still do. I think it’s the way she furrows her brow when she sings, as though she is in pain or perhaps in the incipient throes of an orgasm. Agnetha was the first adult woman I really fancied (along with the dark-haired lady from Baccara from part 2). Another Swede was my first pre-pubescent celebrity crush: the girl who played Annika in the Pippi Langstrumpf (Pippi Longstocking) movies. Anyway, for all their talents, the members of ABBA seemed to be rather nice, ordinary people. They might have been your folks’ friends, the people you were allowed to greet before being sent to bed. One can imagine Björn getting a bit bristly, possibly due to the tight trousers he wore. He looked like he really should have been an architect. Agnetha looked like a dental hygienist (don’t even think of making oral jokes!), Annifrid like a hairdresser (or perhaps art teacher), and Benny like a truck driver who got promoted to an administrative office gig where he’d now mainly look at porn magazines. Yes, they did look like they could have been my parents’ friends. No surprise, then, that in 1977 my mother bought the ABBA – The Album LP, and the following year went to see ABBA – The Movie (though her review of it was scathing). My older brother, the DJ at the church camp disco that produced my first slow dance (story in part 1 of 1977), acquired the single as part of a whole bunch for more church discos.

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Amanda Lear – The Queen Of Chinatown.mp3
Amanda Lear pulled one of the great PR stunts in pop history when rumours, allegedly emanating from her quarters (as per an idea by Salvatore Dali), began to circulate that she was a transsexual, a notion supposedly supported by her deep voice. Then, to prove that these were just “malicious” rumours, Lear posed for nude photos, which were widely published. Even Bravo — for all its inherent conservatism not a publication shy of portraying nudity (the pederasts must have loved the covers showing naked teen girls; check out the ’70s Bravo covers) — ran some of these pics. Sure enough, Ms Lear was indeed all woman. The rumours of her transgendered birth persist, because it’s just too god to let it go.

All that calls to mind the South African runner Caster Semenya, the world champion who was publicly humiliated by having to undergo a test to determine whether she was a girl or a boy or transgendered (and I don’t buy the argument that a white athlete would have been treated in the same shameful manner). Last month it was rather quietly revealed that she is indeed female. In the interim this rural teenage girl was put through a hell of publicity, with even the standard bearers of political correctness feeling entitled to crack jokes at her expense. I wonder whether this gifted athlete and perfectly pleasant girl will ever recover from this experience? And the muck of wilful suspicion will not dissipate.

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Raffaella Carrà – A far l’amore comincia tu (Liebelei).mp3
Sometimes the songs you despised back then are very effective in conjuring sentiments of nostalgia. So it is with this song, which I absolutely despised as 1977 turned cold (I hated the German Schlager version by the ingratiating Tony Holiday, titled Tanze Samba mit mir, even more). Hearing the song now, it isn’t really that bad. It has a nice energy. Carrà’s stage personality didn’t really help much to endear her to me. She had an over-enthusiastic way of shaking her booty that hinted at coordination troubles, she dressed in disco clothes like a pre-menopausal startrooper on a final mission, and she disappointed me by not conforming to my stereotype of the dark-haired Italian. Carrà, who first recorded the song in 1975, later released the song in German as Liebelei (the word that incongruously was part of the original title).

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Leif Garrett – Surfin’ U.S.A..mp3
I remember the day I bought this atrocity very well. I had just bought a pop music magazine called, I think, Pop. That issue included cool stickers picturing pop stars and band logos, and (I’m pretty sure) an article about the Lynyrd Skynyrd planecrash. I read the mag on the bus to my maths tutor’s place. On the way back, I decided to stop in town and drop in at the local Karstadt department store to buy myself a single…this single. Leif Garrett, as the cover suggests, was a teen idol in the Shaun Cassidy mode, the kind that Tiger Beat fed on regardless of accomplishment or talent. Before becoming a recording star, Garrett had been a quite prolific child actor, playing roles such as Tony Randall’s son in the TV series of The Odd Couple. His singing career was not very successful, though his disco number In Was Made For Dancing was a hit in Europe in early 1979. My older brother borrowed this record, and in return introduced me to Them, thereby igniting in me a nascent interest in older rock music which would find fuller expression a few months later. Yet, when I bought this single, I had no idea Surfin’ USA was a cover of the Beach Boys song.

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Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (single version).mp3
Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood + Esmeralda Suite.mp3
Santa Esmeralda– You’re My Everything.mp3

Handclaps, percussion, enter the Spanish guitars, wait for the riff and the strings, and then Leroy Gomez kicks in: “Baby, do you-ou understahand me now”. Wow. And it gets even better. Never mind Nina Simone, Santa Esmeralda’s is the perfect version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Here we have the 7″ version, which is all I can handle as I boogie furiously across the floor, and the even better full version, which comes with a heart attack warning. And in case I never get around to posting it, there’s also a very fine ballad titled You’re My Everything, which appeared on the LP (which included only four songs) and in some regions as the b-side of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

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Umberto Tozzi – Ti Amo.mp3
I must confess:  I rather like cheesy Italian pop, and I have no idea whether the stuff is considered totally uncool or not by Italians (I suspect the latter). Ti Amo possibly is my favourite of the lot (but that may be the nostalgia speaking). Umberto really gets into it, too. He went on to have a few more hits in Germany, including Tu and Gloria, which later became a hit for the late Laura Branigan. South African-born Schlager singer Howard Carpendale did the obligatory German cover of it, retaining the Italian title but draining all the impassioned drama from the original.

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The Runaways – School Days.mp3
Having noted my return to music fanaticism, my mother gave me for a stereo for Christmas. It was a fairly basic thing by most standards, but a most welcome step-up from my now broken record player whose lid doubled as a speaker. This one had a plastic lid designed for no other purpose than to guard the system against dust. Cool. By now I was spending all my money on singles. Just after Christmas, I bought the Wings’ Mull Of Kintyre, a few weeks before it even entered the German charts, persuading me that I had an unerring talent for spotting a trend. And I bought the Runaways single. Having read about manager Kim Foley and the decimation of the original line-up in Rocky magazine, I rather liked the look of promoted frontwoman Joan Jett. I had no idea what the Runaways sounded like. But I wanted at least some Joan Jett. I remember sitting on the bus on my way to my grandmother’s (she still funded my record-buying expeditions, but acknowledged that she could no longer use me as a proxy for her Heino-loving ways), feeling a rather sexual excitement at the thought of hearing Joan Jett’s voice. She would not disappoint. And it would not be the last record I’d buy under the influence of hormones.

Step back to 1977 – Part 2

July 21st, 2010 5 comments

In part one of my nostalgic trip to 1977 I recalled the sudden death of my father and how I shoved my rival out of the way in a race for my first true love’s favour. Puberty’s hormones had started to rage in my 11-year-old body. One day in early September I bought a copy of the teen magazine Bravo, familiar to me from the posters that used to cover my older sister’s bedroom walls. This one had Linda Blair from The Exorcist on the cover, and inside the first of a four-part series of Smokie posters. Apart with providing me with excellent sex education, buying Bravo turned me from a casual music fan into an obsessive. My growth was rapid, as the first part of 1978 will show. I might regard most of the sings in this post with nostalgic affection, but I am not proud to associate myself with some of them publicly.

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Baccara – Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.mp3
Baccara – Sorry, I’m A Lady.mp3

I have told the story before how the poetry of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie ignited my passion for the English language, which by 1977 I had learned for a year in school. It was the word “erjitayshin” (as in “Meester, your eyes are full of hesitation”) that send me to the Langenscheidt Englisch-Deutsch dictionary. It caused me great satisfaction to have mastered a four-syllable word. From there, I’d regularly translate lyrics from the snappily titled Top Schlagersongtextheft booklets. As we’ll see in part 3 of 1977, my first celebrity crush on an adult involved the blonde from ABBA, but the Baccara lady in black also gave me strange stirrings, proving that I am not tied to a particular type of woman. The spoken admonition in the Spanish duo’s second hit, in which the white Baccaraette regrets that she is a woman of virtue, also seemed cute and, indeed, sexy to me. In short, Baccara represent the aural and visual stimuli to my nascent pubescent sexual awakening.
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Harpo – In The Zum-Zum-Zummernight.mp3
Flute! This is not one of Harpo’s better-remembered songs. It reached #13 in West-Germany in September, his last Top 20 entry there. Indeed, by 1977 – the year he spent a month in Swedish jail for refusing to perform compulsory military service – Harpo’s career was declining. Being a bit of a Harpo fan, I bought two more singles by Harpo after this — Television and a cover of The Troggs’ With A Girl Like You, neither of which were hits — and then the singer disappeared. A few years later he briefly returned to the news when he sustained serious injuries from being kicked by a horse he was training (he lost sight in one eye and his sense of smell). You and I might have boiled the horse down for glue. Harpo, in commendable contrast to you and me, named his next album after the horse, Starter. Apparently Harpo still performs (Northern German and Danish readers can catch him on 30 July at an Oldies-Night in Süderbarup, near Flensburg).
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Boney M – Belfast.mp3
Like Woody Guthrie before them, Boney M had a message of politics. “Got to have a believin’, got to have a believin’, got to have a believin’ all the people ’cause the people are leavin’. When the people believin’, when the people believin’, when the people believin’ all the children cause the children are leavin’.” Right on! It took 20 years for the conflicting sides to listen to Boney M with open hearts and minds before they signed the Good Friday Peace Accord. On this song, Marcia Barrett got to sing lead instead of the more ubiquitous Liz Mitchell. It was co-written by Drafi Deutscher (who in the1960s recorded what may well be the only ever world-class Schlager, Marmor Stein und Eisen) specifically for Barrett, intended for her to sing even before she joined Boney M. Its original, less snappy title was Londonderry, which might locate Deutscher either on the Protestant or the Oblivious side.

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Rubettes – Ooh-La-La.mp3
When successful acts died commercially in Britain, they lingered on for a while in Germany. The Rubettes benefitted from such loyalties when their Ooh La La La became a hit well past their sell-by date. I thought the chorus was quite catchy, but I obviously did not take the time to translate them. “I’m contemplating having her my bride; she’s got great big tits, that’s what she has. Yes, when it comes down to lovin’, anything goes and everyone knows it, I swear now, for she has a thing about shedding her clothes.” Tom Waits was not going to perform a cover version of that, but it was pretty risque for the pop charts in the 1970s. And then, Rubettes Man engages himself with her clothes-shedding temperament: “I heard my parents footsteps coming down the stairs to see what all the noise was about. So I rolled over to the old piano and I said: ‘Ma, we’ve been playing the blues.’ My mother gave me a knowing glance and she said: ‘Son, is that how you play it with your trousers round your shoes?’” Surely a real mother would have given a knowing look and ask her horny son not to soil the rug…

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Bay City Rollers – You Made Me Believe In Magic.mp3
There are BCR songs I like because they make me feel like a kid again. But this song I like because it’s damn good. It didn’t do very well because by then even the German teen girls had begun deserting the group, though it apparently cracked the US Top 10 (but only #34 in the UK and even in Germany only #24). Soon singer Leslie McKeown would depart as well. So You Made Me Believe In Magic stands as a testament to what might have been. It has a great arrangement (I really like the strings) and the guitar solo – ostensibly by Woody, but I don’t buy that – is pretty good too, albeit rather of its time. In memory of BCR, here’s a great video of the band performing for OAPs; I suspect it was a funny response to their being a teenybopper band.

Anyway, BCR remind me of the Great Poster Debate of September 1977. Bravo carried four different sizes of posters: A4, A3, a double-sided A2 insert called the “Superposter”, and the Starschnitt, weekly pieces of a picture that glued together would produce a life-sized poster (the only one I ever collected was of the Beatles). Although I was not a little girl, there were BCR posters up on the walls of the bedroom which my younger brother and I shared. Although I bought the magazines, we’d take weekly turns in deciding which posters would go up; my brother’s bargaining strategy was that if he had no say, he’d veto any poster going up. One week, the Superposter choice fell between a garish picture of BCR clones called the Dead End Kids on the colour side, and a really cool monochrome photo of Jimi Hendrix (of whom I knew nothing yet, other than that he was dead). Alas, it was brother’s week to choose the posters (pictured on the Bravo cover here), and he opted for the fucking Dead End Kids. I tried all I could to persuade him that Jimi had to go up, even trying to emotionally blackmail him by claiming that our late father, an opera and theatre man, was a big Jimi Hendrix fan. To no avail. The Dead End Kids went up – comedy socks, skimpy cut-off denim shorts with rather too open legs and all. I never got to hear any of their records, but a lot of Hendrix’s.

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Kenny Rogers – Lucille.mp3
Two years ago I was at a party when the electricity went off. The host quickly produced a guitar for an old-fashioned sing-along. But when nobody really remembers complete lyrics, these things tend to e short-lived. So as our host was idly playing as blues riff, I started singing along, making up lyrics as I went along to what I called The Muthafuckin’ Blues. The lyrics of my ditty were more country than blues. You know the deal: my dog gone died, my woman gone left me, and the crops in the field are being left unharvested. Later I realised that, apart from the deceased canine (and the bitter end that my woman who gone left me would eventually meet), I was riffing on the theme of Kenny Roger’s Lucille, from the point of view of the wronged husband.

My mother bought the single on a trip in October to Cologne, at the massive Saturn store, at the time Europe’s biggest record shop. It was our first family trip since my father’s death in June. Before departing, I had been given a new pair of black leather shoes which had a very distinctive smell. Lucille evokes that smell and the very particular memories of that trip.

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Hoffmann & Hoffmann – Himbeereis zum Frühstück.mp3
Carole King – Hard Rock Cafe.mp3

This German cover of the Bellamy Brothers rather good Crossfire played every morning on our radio alarm clock, a modern thing with green digital numbers. Almost like I Got You Babe in Groundhog Day. It was one of three songs that seemed to play in a loop at the time: Carole King’s Hardrock Café, a German cover version of Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today by a guy who played the fiddle, and this song. Although I was by now vehemently opposed to any German music whatsoever, I had a sneaking affection for this song. Raspberry ice cream for breakfast (which beats starfish and coffee, maple syrup and cream) sounded like just the thing to fulfill my nutritional needs. I was intrigued by the notion of rock ‘n’ roll in an elevator (you don’t think they meant something other than dancing to Bill Haley, do you?). Sadly, one of the Hoffmanns died young, having thrown himself from a Rio hotel window in 1984. He was 33. I can’t say I liked Carole King’s song much, though it sounds a lot better now.

Part 3 follows soon. And when we get to 1978, when the music will get a lot better.

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More Stepping Back

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Any Major Soul 1986-87

July 16th, 2010 No comments

As the mid-1980s turned into the late-’80s, the Quiet Storm sound, invented by Smokey Robinson and perfected by Luther Vandross, became the genre’s standard. When it was good, it really was good. People like Freddy Jackson, Anita Baker and Jeffrey Osborne were turning out some great music of that type (perhaps even the best); but when Michael Fucking Bolton started to muscle in on it, and Peabo Bryson sang MFB covers, Quiet Storm had to go (even if it had to be replaced by New Jack Swing and the soul-free wailers Boyz II Men). In any case, this mix represents much more than Quiet Storm material.

Southern Soul man Marvin Sease is in a rather restrained mood here. His surname rhymes with an adjective that would accurately describe the general gist of his lyrics (I certainly do endorse the title of his rather good 2001 album, A Woman Would Rather Be Licked). Here, however, he is not proposing the reciprocal performance of lewd acts, but old-fashioned marriage. Success took long to come to Sease: by the time he made his breakthrough as a solo artist in 1986, he already was 40.

One of my all-time favourite soul songs is on this mix, Tashan’s Ooh We Baby. Tashan (pronounced Tay-shon), who was signed on Def Jam, was received well critically, but never broke through commercially. It’s a pity; his 1986 album Chasing A Dream is one of the finest soul albums of the 1980s. The singer, born Thomas Jerome Pearse, is still performing, apparently releasing a new album this year.

Another unusually named singer here is Sherrick, who had a UK hit in 1987 with the excellent Just Call (which is on Any Major 80s Soul Vol 1) . The song featured here, Baby I’m Real, is a cover of the song by The Originals (I’ve always wanted to write that) and appeared on the same LP as Just Call. Sherrick evidently styled his look on DeBarge: dainty moustache and oiled hair just this side of the jheri curl. Like DeBarge, Sherrick (born Lamont Smith) had recorded on Motown, as the singer of the clumsily-named Kagny & the Dirty Rats; in fact, he was discovered by Berry Gordy’s wife Raynoma. His only solo LP, as far as I can ascertain, was released on Warner Brothers. Sadly, Sherrick died in 1999 at 41, just as he was beginning to record new songs.

It’s an injustice that English soul singer Paul Johnson did not have much success. His song When Love Comes Calling should be a soul classic. That and Half A World Away were produced by fellow UK soulster Junior Giscombe (Mama Used To Say). Johnson, who had a mean falsetto, had previously been a singer with the group Paradise. He later duetted with Mica Paris on her debut LP and released a second album in 1989. He has a Facegroup group, on which he writes: “My life is now somewhat removed from the music industry. I am head of a department in an inner city college where I work with young people and adults who despite very difficult circumstances are attempting to improve their lives through accessing education.”

I trust that nobody is going to confuse Shirley Jones with the mom of the Partridge Family. This Shirley Jones was one of the fabulous Jones Girls (who featured on Any Major Soul 1978-79 and 1980-81). I think that Shirley’s 1986 album, Always In The Mood, was her only solo effort. Do You Get Enough Love is the LP’s stand-out track, and topped the R&B charts. Apparently Jones took an extended break from recording after that to raise her son. She still performs on stage (find her on MySpace)

Shirley Jones’ MySpace page reveals that she has lately shared a stage with fellow Philly star Jean Carne (who added the ‘e’ to her name for reasons of numerology in the 1980s). Born in 1947 as Sarah Jean Perkins (Carne is her married name), she has had a long career, starting in the early 1970s — including a stint as female lead on Earth Wind & Fire’s first two albums — and reaching its zenith on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label (she featured on Any Major Soul 1978-79). Closer Than Close topped the R&B charts, but further commercial success eluded her. Carne is probably one of very few soul singers fluent in Russian.

Chicago-born Miki Howard launched her career with her Come Share My Love album, which included the hit Imagination. The daughter of gospel singers stepped out with the late Gerald Levert for a while, and played Billie Holiday in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. She had some success until the mid-1990s, when she retired from recording and became a radio DJ in Atlanta instead. She came out of retirement in the early 2000s and now performs as a jazz singer.

Prince Phillip Mitchell is better known as a successful songwriter than as a singer. He started his career as a teenage member of The Premiers and The Checkmates in the late 1950s. Like Jean Carn, in the ’70s he sang on Norman Connors records. His solo LPs made little impact, and in 1979 he withdrew from recording, reappearing briefly in 1986 with the rather good Devastation LP. He seems like a great guy with a good story. Check out this 2001 interview.

TRACKLISTING
1. Maze featuring Frankie Beverley – Before I Let Go (live)
2. Alexander O’Neal & Cherelle – Never Knew Love Like This
3. Force M.D.’s – Love Is A House
4. Sherrick – Baby I’m For Real
5. Marvin Sease – Let’s Get Married Today
6. Jean Carne – Closer Than Close
7. Tashan – Ooh We Baby
8. Freddie Jackson – Have You Ever Loved Somebody
9. Shirley Jones – Do You Get Enough Love
10. Kashif & Meli’sa Morgan – Love Changes
11. Jeffrey Osborne – You Should Be Mine (Woo Woo Song)
12. Luther Vandross feat Gregory Hines – There’s Nothing Better Than Love
13. Miki Howard – Come Share My Love
14. Paul Johnson – Half A World Away
15. The Winans feat Anita Baker – Ain’t No Need To Worry (12″ version)
16. Prince Phillip Mitchell – I Taught Her Everything

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South Africa – Vol. 4

July 9th, 2010 2 comments

The party is almost over. On Sunday, two hands will receive the World Cup trophy and lift it high as confetti sprays out of machines, reminding me that some poor souls will have to clean up the mess.

For South African residents in the seven host cities, it has been a ride. The vibe has been amazing, and the tournament has been very well organised. The special courts that were set up to deal with crime have been in a somnolent state due to inaction. I am sure those bottomless pits of vomit in the European and British media that predicted roaming bands of criminals robbing and raping foreign fans and shooting with AK-47s at the German team will gladly retract their slanderous and – yes, I’ll damn well will say it – racist propaganda against South Africa.

These unfounded predictions cost South Africa. Fewer people than expected came. We may account for some of the shortfall with reference to the economic crisis. But the vicious propaganda hurt South Africa. Still, the host has answered its critics. The stadiums were built in time, travelling fans were safe from crime and race wars, and the atmosphere was every bit as genial as it was in Germany four years earlier. Of course, crime was controlled only by an immense show of strength by the police, which now knows that with good application and resources it might get a handle on the country’s crime crisis. And one hopes that the government will show the same political will in solving poverty as it did in building stadiums and tossing FIFA’s salad.

FUNNIEST WORLD CUP MOMENT: When you lose 4-1 to your most hated foe and are dressed in WW2 uniforms, at least remember to remove your comedy moustache…

South Africa put on a world class show. It could not have been much better, give or take a few transport snafus (Durban airport screwed things up royally on Wednesday). The world’s biggest event was staged in South Africa – in Africa! – with every bit as much competence and efficiency as it was in Germany four years ago. The impact of this on South Africa’s and Africa’s psyche cannot be underestimated. Likewise, the memory of South Africa’s successful organisation must alter the perception of the country and continent among those who have held images of cliché. The government has shown the political will to show that it can do something extraordinary. It must now show the will to do more extraordinary things: beating poverty and crime chief among these.

Like everybody else who was in the host cities over the past four weeks, I will retain many great memories (some are represented in the collage avove). The country being awash in flags, the sound of the vuvuzelas, the opening goal that sent South Africa into a huge simultaneous orgasm, several trips to the fan park and four games in the stadium, doing the fan walk (not so great in cold and rainy weather; glorious on balmy evenings), Germany beating England and Argentina, my black Germany scarf, K’naan’s Wave your Flag song and Shakira’s Waka Waka, fans in fancy dress (the Dutch fans especially were great), and – the happiest of all memories – spending a lot of time with Any Minor Dude.

And whoever wins on Sunday, I will have seen the 2010 World Cup winner on their way to becoming champions (Spain against Portugal and Holland against Cameroon).

With all that out of the way, here’s the final batch of South African songs:

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Tony Schilder Trio – Gimme Loving (1995).mp3
Robbie Jansen (with Allou April) – Love Song For Forgotten People (1991).mp3
Spirits Rejoice – Shine On (1978).mp3

The great Cape Town saxophonist and singer Robbie Jansen died on July 7 at the age of 61. Some 20-odd years ago I heard Robbie sing the best version of What’s Going On I have ever heard (he recorded it in 2005; I’ve never heard that though). With his gravelly voice, hoarse from smoking cigarettes (containing brown and green stuff), he was a great interpreter of songs. A collection of covers sung by Robbie Jansen could have been a brilliant album. He recorded a couple of Cape jazz albums and contributed to albums by others, usually by playing the sax. He appeared on Dollar Brand’s classic Mannenberg album (the title is a sloppy misrendering of the ghetto’s name; on the LP he and the larte Basil Coezee harmonised on alto sax), and guested on both albums by the great keyboardist Tony Schilder, who himself is in poor health (as, sadly, is his musician son Hilton; the struggling Schilder family can be assisted via this site), as well as with acts such as Tananas, Juluka and the Sons of Table Mountain, with whom he visited Cuba a few years ago. Jansen was the saxophonist of Pacific Express alongside a young Jonathan Butler and then of Spirits Rejoice (the hit Shine On features Paul Peterson, now a producer, on vocals). Janssen may not have been known outside South Africa, perhaps not even much outside Cape Town. But the man was a legend, a cultural icon in a jazz city. A local trade union has called for a street to be named after Jansen. It is a marvellous idea. Indeed, the city should name a whole district after departed local jazz greats.

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Hugh Masekela – Mama (1996).mp3
Hugh Masekela – Don’t Go Lose It Baby (1984).mp3
Hugh Masekela – Grazing In The Grass (1968).mp3

The jazz legend appeared in the opening ceremony of the World Cup (which also featured R Kelly – an ill-considered choice for an event in a country with high levels of sexual violence against minors). I was surprised by that; Masekela had taken a very negative stance towards the event, arguing that the money should have been spent on poverty relief. Still, it was good to see the doyen of SA jazz still active and looking good at 71. Featured here are three songs from the man’s long career. On Mama, Masekela sings in his deliciously growling voice. It probably is my favourite Masekela track. Don’t Go Lose It Baby is a blazing jazz-funk track, with some retro-rapping for the ’80s nostalgists. Masekela’s joyful Grazing In The Grass, composed by Philemon Hou, topped the US charts in 1968, and is internationally Masekela’s signature song. Dig the cowbells!

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Blk Sonshine – Building (2000).mp3
Blk Sonshine – Born In A Taxi (2000).mp3

It’s difficult to categorise Blk Sonshine. Though an acoustic outfit, Neo Muyanga and Masauko Chipembere have eclectic influences, drawing from kwela, kwaito and reggae as well as from folk, rock and hip hop, with socially conscious lyrics. The rousing Building is a folk-hued, as was their hit song, the gentle and lovely Born In A Taxi. Blk Sonshine are still recording and appearing live. I’ve heard a few songs from their latest album, Good Life. It sounds great (Check the tunes out). Gil Scott-Heron fans will be interested to note that the great man’s flautist Brian Jackson has lately been collaborating with Chipembere, who was born in the US of Malawian parents. And listen to Building: the vocals aren’t a million miles from Scott-Heron’s at his more agitated.  Visit Blk Sonshine at blksonshine.com/

Blk Sonshine must not be confused with the highly-rated township heavy metal band Blk Jks (for a taste of them, check out the excellent Liberator Magazine blog.

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Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse – Burn Out (1985).mp3
Burn Out was the big South African hit of 1985. A true dance track from the townships that easily crossed the race divide, as Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special had done the previous year, at a time when that was still remarkable. It sold half a million copies, an extraordinary figure in South Africa’s small market. Before that, Mabuse had been a member of the influential Afro-funk band Harari, the first black pop group to appear on white TV, in 1979. Mabuse never capitalised on the success of Burn Out to become a big recording star (it took him ten years to release a follow-up album), becoming a successful producer of nascent talent instead.

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Miriam Makeba – Ring Bell, Ring Bell (1967).mp3
This series has to feature at least one Makeba song. I suppose most readers will have stocked up on Makeba music after her death in late 2008, but might have missed this lovely song from Mama Afrika’s 1967 Pata Pata LP, released on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Makeba’s life would make for a great TV mini-series; born to a sangoma (similar to a shaman) mother, the beautiful Miriam had success in South Africa and on the London stage (with Todd Matshikiza’s musical King Kong) before going into exile in the US, where she was also unwanted after marrying civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968. In the interim, she addressed the United Nations on the subject of apartheid, upon which the Pretoria regime revoked her citizenship. Even her last moments were filled with an activist’s spirit: she died after appearing at a concert against organised crime in Italy.

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Letta Mbulu – Hareje (1973).mp3
Another one of the great South African exiles with King Kong connections, Mbulu made her breakthrough when the jazz great David Axelrod signed her to Capitol Records in 1968, to be produced by him alongside such luminaries as Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls. Though the critics loved Mbulu’s albums, the label had no idea how to market her unique Afro-soul sound. After Capitol, she recorded the 1973 Naturally album on Adderley’s Fantasy Records label, from which this track comes. Backing musicians on the album, and on Hareje, included the Crusaders luminaries Wilton Felder, Joe Sample, Stix Hooper and Wayne Henderson. This opened the door for a deal with Herb Alpert’s A&M label, but commercial success continued to elude Mbulu. Still, Quincy Jones liked her, having her sing on the soundtracks to the mini-series Roots and the film The Color Purple. She also sang on Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl. She returned to South Africa with her husband Caiphus Semenya, an acclaimed musician and producer himself, in 1991.

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Four Jacks & A Jill – Master Jack (1968).mp3
This group was at the centre of a beer-fuelled spat I got embroiled in many years ago. I had compiled a pub trivia quiz, and one of the questions concerned South African acts that had ever entered the UK charts. One team of worthies, perennial winners whose dedication to the beer life was amply reflected in their protruding guts, included Four Jacks & A Jill in their answer Their disputation of the fact that Four Jacks & A Jill never bothered the UK charts became rather heated. Alas, I had thought it unnecessary to lug with me all my reference books — in this case the 8th edition of the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles. Ultimately, to keep the peace, the utterly wrong bastards got their point. In return, I marked all their subsequent answers with spiteful strictness. Where my pals went wrong was in confusing the charts: Master Jack failed to chart in Britain but was a Top 20 hit in the US (and a chart-topper in Canada). Although the band comprised four men and a female member, none were called Jack or Jill (the “Jill” was in fact named Glenys Lynne.). The folk-pop group was named after a 1942 movie.

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Prime Circle – Lose Tomorrow (2003).mp3
Occasionally I enjoy a bit of alt.rock; I like a bit of Foo Fighters from time to time. So I can see an upside to Germany being reduced to a third-place play-off against Uruguay today: Prime Circle are scheduled to play at Cape Town’s fan park before the game. Having missed out on Freshlyground last week and Blk Sonshine in June (but having caught the excellent electronica outfit Goldfish there), I am looking forward to that. Their Wikipedia entry seems to have been vandalised with insights like “In 1999 the band hadn’t yet formed” and Wildean wit such as “73% of Prime Circle circle [sic] fans are masochists. The other 27% don’t actually listen to the music.” I am delighted to report that my sides have not split.

More South African stuff

In Memoriam – June 2010

July 8th, 2010 5 comments

The grim reaper enlarged the Big Summer Rock Festival in the sky in June by taking the man who played what might be my all-time favourite guitar solo (Tony Peluso’s effort in the Carpenters’ Goodbye To Love), the bassists on some of the sweetest soul music of the ’70s and some of the most exciting rock tunes of the ’60s. Also departed is one of the original members of The Quarrymen, the group that brought John Lennon and Paul McCartney together, and — speaking of Liverpool — the original singer of You’ll Never Walk Alone. And still on the Beatles, we previously discussed how the piano work on Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues influenced Paul McCartney’s Lady Madonna. The ivory tinkler on the Lyttelton record has passed away, as has the man who played the trombone solo on Count Basie’s April In Paris. All songs listed are in one compilation; there is is some really good stuff in there (such as Larry Jon Wilson, of whom I had not heard before).

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Tony Peluso, 60, guitarist and record producer, on June 5
Carpenters – Goodbye To Love (1972)

Marvin Isley, 56, bassist of The Isley Brothers and Isley-Jasper-Isley) on June 6
The Isley Brothers – If You Were There (1973)

Dana Key, 56, guitarist of Christian rock group DeGarmo and Key, on June 6
DeGarmo & Key – Dare 2 Be Different (1993)

Stuart Cable, 40, drummer of The Stereophonics, on June 7
The Stereophonics – Maybe Tomorrow (2003)

Oliver N’Goma, 51, Gabonese singer and guitarist,on June 7
Oliver N’Goma – Muetse (1995)

Crispian St Peters, 71, British pop singer,on June 8
Crispian St Peters – Pied Piper (1966).mp3

Christine Johnson, 98, soprano and actress, on June 9
Christine Johnson – You’ll Never Walk Alone (1945)

Johnny Parker, 80, British jazz pianist, on June 11
Humphrey Lyttelton – Bad Penny Blues (1956)

Paul Reekie, 50, Scottish post-punk musician, on June 11

Jimmy Dean, 81, country singer, on June 13
Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John (1961)

Ken Brown, 70, guitarist and original member of Beatles pre-cursor The Quarrymen, on June 14
The Quarrymen – That’ll Be The Day (1958)

Busi Mhlongo, 62, influential South African singer, on June 15
Busi Mhlongo – We Baba Omncane (1998)

Garry Shider, 56, guitarist of Parliament/Funkadelic, on June 16
Funkadelic – I Wanna Know If It’s Good to You (1970)

Bill Dixon, 84, US jazz musician, on June 16

Chris Sievey (Frank Sidebottom), 54, British comedian and musician with the Freshies, on June 21
The Freshies – Yellow Spot (1980)

Larry Jon Wilson, 69, country/folk musician & songwriter, on June 21
Larry Jon Wilson – Shoulders (2009)

Tam White, 67, Scottish blues singer, on June 21

Pete Quaife, 66, bassist of The Kinks, on June 24
The Kinks – Picture Book (1968)

JoJo Billingsley, 58, back-up singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd who missed that flight in 1977, on June 24
Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell (1977)

Fred Anderson, 81, avant garde jazz saxophonist, on June 24.

Sergio Vega, 40, Mexican banda singer, shot dead on June 26.
Sergio Vega – Musico, Poeta y Loco (2004)

Benny Powell, 80, jazz trombonist with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie a.o., on June 26.
Count Basie – April In Paris (1963)

Harold Cowarts, 66, bassist on hits such as Brook Benton’s Rainy Night In Georgia, Grease and Islands In The Stream, on June 27.
John Fred & his Playboy Band – Judy In Disguise (1968)

Rammellzee, 49, hip hop musician and graffiti artist, on June 27.
Rammellzee – Pay The Rent (2004)

Alf Caretta, 93, Singer of British band The Zimmers, on June 29.
The Zimmers – My Generation (2007)

Queen Jane, 45, Kenyan singer, on June 29.

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