The capstone of the Shostakovich project

It’s a little surreal having this on my dining room table. The latest in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies has arrived. And I’m on it.

Because other things were happening, I’ve only written a little about the work that we did over the last few years, starting before COVID, to prepare the three Shostakovich symphonies to feature chorus. Symphony No. 2 was premiered by us at Tanglewood in July 2019, and received a follow-up in Symphony Hall in November of that year, accompanied by a work for choir, percussion, and flute by Galina Grigorjeva, On Leaving. It’s a tremendously moving work and one that I enjoyed more than the Shostakovich 2, if I’m honest. His early symphonies were, if we’re being kind, student works that had at their heart either a deeply ironic or deeply misguided patriotic voice.

TFC performing “On Leaving” at Symphony Hall in 2019 with percussionist Kyle Brightwell, assistant principle flute Elizabeth Klein, and tenor Matthew Anderson, James Burton conducting. Photo courtesy Hilary Scott/BSO

We were supposed to do Symphony No. 3 the following season, but I think we all know what happened in March 2020. So everything moved out by two years, and we finally sang it in the summer of 2022 at Tanglewood, initially under the baton of BSO assistant conductor Anna Rakitina, alongside Borodin’s Polivtsian Dances. We returned to the work that fall in Symphony Hall, in an unusual program that presented the work with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and his Serenade for violin and orchestra. Number 3 is arguably a better work, but still early, and while it doesn’t feature a role for factory siren like Number 2, it still has a lot of shouted Soviet propaganda.

Shostakovich famously fell out with Stalin and ended up in a prison camp, and his compositional voice was much more cautious until the dictator’s death. Then came one of his great masterworks, the Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar.” I’ve written a little about some of the poetry and about the overall experience of singing the work, but I’m very excited to hear it now that the disc is available.

And hey, I’m very glad to add a recording on Deutsche Grammophon to my discography!

Though I should note we aren’t done. We’re going to sing Lady Macbeth of the Mtinsk District in the new year, so I don’t get to relax my palatalized consonants just yet.

June Christy, The Song is June!

The great, yet little-known singer June Christy takes us through a collection of delicious melancholy.

Album of the Week, October 28, 2023

Our tour of vocalists has reached an interesting corner. I hadn’t heard of June Christy before I found her 1961 Christmas album This Time of Year recommended in a list of little-known holiday albums. I was hooked: a beautiful instrument with sadness and pain around the edges, singing songs for grown-ups that layer delight, regret, and heartbreak in equal measures. (Christmas songs that demand Scotch rather than eggnog.) So I was thrilled when I found a few more of her records in a small shop in Asheville last summer, and came home with today’s album of the week.

Shirley Luster was born in 1925 in Springfield, Illinois. At the age of 13 she was singing with big bands and jazz orchestras around Decatur. She moved to Chicago after high school and began performing under the name Sharon Leslie, then moved to New York. Her big break came when Anita O’Day left the Stan Kenton orchestra in 1945 and she got the gig. Changing her stage name again to June Christy, she recorded a string of hits with Kenton, including “Shoo Fly Pie (and Apple Pan Dowdy),” “How High the Moon,” and “Tampico.” While still performing and recording with Kenton, she began a series of solo records, backed by Pete Rugolo and his orchestra. She had a a hit in 1954 with the album Something Cool. In 1958 she released The Song is June!.

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” gives you a good flavor for where the divine Ms. Christy differs from the other vocalists in the pack. Written by Fran Landesman (lyrics) and Tommy Wolf, the melody has been described as “slithery, slippery, abstract, bordering on unsingable,” but June’s rendition is unhurried, unfussy, and devastatingly dark. Her voice rides a little low against the pitch—not flat, but with a depth and darkness to it that you don’t find in the works of other great singers of the period. Knowing that Landesman wrote it for a “beatnik musical” (The Nervous Set) from inspiration from “The Waste Land” is the icing on the cake for me and makes the song utterly compelling.

The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else)” is more uptempo, but similarly slippery in arrangement and performance. June’s diction hits the marks of the Isham Jones/Gus Kahn collaboration a full half measure behind the arrangement, lending it an off-kilter feel that staggers artfully against the bounce of Pete Rugolo’s orchestra.

Nobody’s Heart,” a lesser known Rodgers and Hart collaboration, is one of Hart’s great dark lyrics: “Nobody’s heart belongs to me/heigh ho, who cares?… I admire the moon/as a moon/Just a moon…” Coming from an oddball musical called By Jupiter and set in the land of the Amazons, the song could easily slip over into silliness or nostalgia, but Christy finds its dark center, trailing off the final “Nobody’s heart belongs to me / today” into a swoon.

My Shining Hour” belongs to the more manic side of this set, but the arrangement finds some melancholy even here, with woodwind solo passages amid the bright vibraphones and brass of the arrangement of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song. Christy finds emotional depth in the last moments of the song, stretching the tempo on the last “This will be my shining hour” until we realizes that her narrator repeats the phrase to convince herself, not us.

I Remember You” has plenty of pathos about it already. The song was written by Johnny Mercer, with Victor Schlesinger, for a 19-year-old Judy Garland, who broke off the pair’s relationship when she married composer David Rose. There’s wistfulness in Christy’s version, but an undercurrent of pain as well.

Night Time Was My Mother” is a deeply unusual song, slipping in and out of minor keys and exploring a dark familial structure—night as the mother, music as the brother, and “old man blues” as an adopted family member. Written by Connie Pearce and Arnold Miller, this song doesn’t appear on any earlier recordings; it may as well be Christy’s theme song, based on the dark tones of her work.

I Wished On the Moon” (Ralph Rainger with Dorothy Parker) is a more optimistic tune, and Christy gives it an almost bouncy performance, as though the light is coming through the clouds. “The Song is You” brings us back to the darkness, with Christy’s declamation of Oscar Hammerstein’s opening lyric “I hear music/A beautiful theme of every/dream I ever knew” sounding like a declaration of despair.

As Long As I Live” feels like it starts in the middle of things, with June scatting over the bouncy orchestration. Ted Koehler’s lyrics are on the slight side, but there’s still something melancholic in the idea of someone who never cared for life taking care of herself so that she can enjoy her new relationship longer longer: “I never cared, but now I’m scared/I won’t live long enough/That’s why I wear my rubbers when it rains…” Harold Arlen’s melody keeps things moving along, making this one of the brighter moments in the album.

Saturday’s Children” is another tune that appeared for the first time on this album, and it feels like a summation of the moods that Christy explores throughout. André Previn sets Bob Russell’s wry lyric (“I would call me Saturday’s child, For Saturday’s children got nothin’ for free! Nothin’ comes easy, like forgettin’ you…”) in a wistful haze of a melody, ably born out in Rugolo’s arrangement. The bandleader said, “I used all the best guys in the string sections. You’d go in to the session and you’d see ten concertmasters! They all… made more money than in the symphonies. So you’d see the first violinist from the Los Angeles symphony, and the people that used to play with Toscanini…”

Overall the record is a dark delight, a tone poem of mature melancholy that is by turns warmly optimistic, resigned, and fatalistic. Christy’s performance here is of a great craftsman, and it’s unfortunate that her collaboration with Rugolo would only yield one more album. Christy’s career, like many other singers of this period, did not survive the arrival of rock’n’roll, and she retired in 1969, partly due to an ongoing battle with alcoholism. She un-retired a few times, performing in jazz festivals in the 1970s and recording one last solo LP in 1977, before dying in 1990. But the performances that she left behind are richly rewarding… provided that you aren’t susceptible to infectious melancholy.

Next time we’ll listen to the first of a few vocal jazz recordings from the same period that, unlike Christy’s unfairly neglected work, have become modern classics.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Exfiltration Radio: anothercoverholenyohead

It’s the second Hackathon playlist this week, and the second Prince covers playlist (see: “Wanna be your cover”). This time I went hunting for jazz covers of Prince’s music, and it was surprisingly harder than I thought to find them… but they’re out there and they’re funky.

Austrian pianist David Helbock is new to me, but he was a godsend as his album Purple had a huge number of highly creative Prince covers. “Kiss” is a great example, recognizable but substantially recreated with melody line in the low bass and a combination of regular and prepared piano.

Michael Wolff was the bandleader on the Arsenio Hall show, and “The Wolff & Clark Expedition” has been recording together since 2013. “1999” comes from their 2015 album, and it’s a great version of the song, with Christian McBride on bass, Wallace Roney on trumpet, new-to-me Hailey Niswanger on sax and Daryl Johns on bass, Wolff on piano and Clark on drums.

Guitarist Dave Stryker’s “When Doves Cry” is a classic soul-jazz group lineup with Jared Gold on organ, McClenty Hunter on drums, and Steve Nelson on vibes. It’s a great take on one of Prince’s most covered songs. “The Beautiful Ones” has a very different vibe, with Ethan Iverson’s distinctive piano and improvisational style anchoring his iteration of the Bad Plus on their final record together. Often the Bad Plus can come across as bombastic on record, but this track feels lighter since the band steps back to let Reid Anderson take the lead melody in the verse on bass.

Helen Sung is another new-to-me pianist who’s been recording since 2003. “Alphabet Street” comes from her second album, in the trio format with Lewis Nash on drums and Derrick Hodge on bass. It’s a bop, a real romp through one of Prince’s lightest songs. Compare and contrast to the Jesus & Mary Chain’s version on “Wanna be your cover.”

There were a bunch of jazz covers of “Sexy M.F.”—not surprising, given the thick horn arrangement in the original. A lot of them, indeed, sounded like straight-up instrumental versions of the original chart. Brazil-born Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff’s version reimagines the song through a James Brown inspired lens, with a persistent bass line heartbeat from Reggie Washington and nimble drum work by Lukas Koenig.

“Jailbait” is a little bit of a cheat, as I don’t know if there was ever a Prince recording of this funk/blues composition. But given it comes from Prince’s last live recording from Vienne, and it was specifically written by Prince for Miles, I couldn’t not include it. The last band he toured with featured Kenny Garrett on sax and a really tight rhythm section with Deron Johnson on keys, Richard Patterson and Foley on bass, and Ricky Wellman on drums.

Miles’ old bandmate Herbie Hancock released an album of pop covers in the mid-1990s with a killer band—Michael Brecker, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Dave Holland, and Don Alias! “Thieves in the Temple” has a feel of some of Herbie’s early Blue Note recordings, filtering Prince’s increasingly complex late-1980s songwriting into a distinctive brew.

So many new faces! Marcin Wasilewski records on ECM, and that label’s famed sonic approach is all over “Diamonds and Pearls,” from his second album. This trio recording is what jazz trios are all about; the degree of telepathy with Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass and Michal Miskiewicz on drums is something to behold, and the arrangement is sparse, unfussy, and beautifully melodic. Wasilewski’s solo (coming at about the 2:30 mark) honors the song while making its own lyric approach, which can be hard to do when dealing with a well known composition. Looking forward to digging into more of his discography.

From the solemnly beautiful to the bonkers, “Controversy” is the second tune from David Helbock’s Purple. I can’t tell what piece of scrap percussion Helbock hammers throughout the piece, but it’s perfectly tuned to an F# and beautifully represents the four-note “Controversy” theme, which Helbock develops throughout the work, veering from a quiet melody to a bluesy stomp to something symphonic and strange.

Joshua Redman’s quartet take on “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” is a more straightforward bluesy reading of this essential Prince deep cut. The band here—Brad Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Brian Blade on drums—keeps things just off-kilter enough to make it more than just a superb soul jazz workout, which it of course also is, and most of the interesting bits happen just with Redman and Grenadier or Blade.

We wind out with an excerpt of Aretha Franklin’s big band arrangement of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Where the arrangement by Jimmy Scott on “Wanna be your cover” is achingly dry, this one is ebulliently Aretha; we fade out her scat solo with deepest regret.

Here’s the track listing:

  1. KissDavid Helbock (Purple)
  2. 1999 (feat. Michael Wolff & Mike Clark)Wolff & Clark Expedition (Expedition 2 (feat. Michael Wolff & Mike Clark))
  3. When Doves CryDave Stryker (Eight Track II)
  4. The Beautiful OnesThe Bad Plus (It’s Hard)
  5. Alphabet StreetHelen Sung Trio (Helenistique)
  6. Sexy M.F.Malcolm Braff Trio (The Enja Heritage Collection: Inside (with Reggie Washington & Lukas Koenig))
  7. Jailbait (Live at Vienne Jazz Festival, 1991)Miles Davis (Merci Miles! Live at Vienne)
  8. Thieves In the TempleHerbie Hancock (The New Standard)
  9. Diamonds and PearlsMarcin Wasilewski Trio (January)
  10. ControversyDavid Helbock (Purple)
  11. How Come U Don’t Call Me AnymoreJoshua Redman (Timeless Tales (for Changing Times))
  12. Nothing Compares 2 UAretha Franklin (Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics)

And please enjoy listening to the mix. Kick back, dig…

Exfiltration Radio: Wanna be your cover

It’s a Veracode Hackathon time, so it’s time for some Exfiltration Radio! And this time around we are feeling purple! Show notes below.

I was talking about Sheryl Crow for some reason at the office recently, and casually mentioned the Prince cover of “Everyday is a Winding Road,” and they said, What? And I said, “Oh, you have to hear that.”

And so I decided to put together a playlist of songs that Prince covered. Then I realized that there actually weren’t that many songs that Prince covered in his lifetime… though the ones he did were epic. So I broadened the scope to include … unusual covers of Prince songs. Turns out, there are a lot of those out there!

Let’s start with the Information Society’s version of “Controversy,” from Prince’s fourth album. This version puts awkward industrial dance energy into Prince’s electrofunk, with unusual—maybe danceable—results.

Chaka Khan’s version of “I Feel For You” might be more familiar, at least if you were born before 1980. I personally remember people wandering around saying “Chaka Khan? Chaka-chaka-chaka-chaka Khan?” after the famous opening, which (fun fact) was recorded by Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. (Melle Mel’s most famous performance was on “The Message,” which deserves its own themed mix.)

This version of “1999” is by Dump, the pseudonym of James McNew, bassist for Yo La Tengo (and onetime attendant at the Corner Parking Lot, memorialized in The Parking Lot Movie), and comes from a full collection of Prince covers in a variety of … unusual styles. I’m not entirely sure what time signature this cover is in, but I do like listening and floating away with it.

Cyndi Lauper’s “When You Were Mine” comes from the impeccable A side of her debut album and covers a great track from Prince’s Dirty Mind album, itself one of the great albums of the early 1980s. It’s a great example of a cover artist making a song their own. Likewise, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ version of “Take Me With U” could almost have come from any Sharon Jones album—which is high praise, considering the uniformly high quality of her soul albums.

“Soul” is not necessarily a word one would use for the Tom Jones/Art of Noise cover of “Kiss,” but there is an incredibly high level of energy in both Jones’s gutsy vocal and the Art of Noise backing track that makes this a fun listen. Also fun: identifying the Easter eggs from Art of Noise’s earlier hits in the outro.

We then take a big ol’ left turn into the Jesus and Mary Chain’s version of “Alphabet Street,” which is two-plus minutes of abrasive guitar feedback that I rescued from a b-side to an obscure 1994 single. It’s noisy fun! So is the Hindu Love Gods’ version of “Raspberry Beret,” a jangly romp through one of Prince’s most lighthearted songs with a pickup band consisting of Warren Zevon and three-quarters of R.E.M. (Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Peter Buck).

“Everyday is a Winding Road” is the first of the two covers by Prince that show up on this playlist. I’ve told the story about how this cover came to be here up above, but I’ll just note that when Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic came out, I was still in a formative phase when it came to understanding funk. The difference in meter and rhythm between the foursquare original by Sheryl Crow and Prince’s version might, in jazz terms, be summed up as swing; the arrangement is pure joy, even to the chant at the end, which puts this cover in the context of Prince’s songs to the divine.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is from Prince’s earthier tradition, and this TLC cover might be the definitive version, adding explicit hip-hop beats and a dollop of sensuality to Prince’s original. In a very different way, “The Cross” provides its own definitive version of one of his most explicit pro-Christian songs. The Blind Boys of Alabama had a huge career resurgence from their 2001 album Spirit of the Century, which put a gospel lens on pop and rock music and exposed its listeners to the intensity and depth of the gospel tradition. “The Cross” comes from the follow-up, Higher Ground, and adds even more earthiness and grit to Prince’s religious statement.

“Can’t Make U Love Me” is the second of the two covers by Prince on the album. That he would cover a Bonnie Raitt song is only surprising for casual fans; his love of music was omnivorous, and the song’s depth of insight on relationships is as chilling here as in Raitt’s version. This is one of the times that Prince pulls off a Chaka Khan (or Cyndi Lauper) in reverse; it feels like it’s always been in his catalog, and at the same time adds a greater depth and maturity.

The final track, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” is more covered than almost any other Prince song apart from “Purple Rain.” I agonized about which version to include, but ultimately had to go with the Jimmy Scott version from his Holding Back the Years CD. Scott’s voice, shaped by his Kallman syndrome and by his difficult career, carries the lovely ache of the song better than almost any other, and this version deserves to be better known.

The track listing:

  1. ControversyInformation Society (Essential ’80s Masters)
  2. I Feel for YouChaka Khan (I Feel for You)
  3. 1999Dump (That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice?)
  4. When You Were MineCyndi Lauper (She’s So Unusual)
  5. Take Me With USharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Rendition Was In))
  6. Kiss (7″ Version)Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones (Kiss (EP))
  7. Alphabet StreetJesus and Mary Chain (Come On (EP))
  8. Raspberry BeretHindu Love Gods (Hindu Love Gods)
  9. Everyday is a Winding RoadPrince (Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic)
  10. If I Was Your GirlfriendTLC (CrazySexyCool)
  11. The CrossThe Blind Boys Of Alabama (Higher Ground)
  12. Can’t Make U Love MePrince (Emancipation)
  13. Nothing Compares 2 UJimmy Scott (Holding Back The Years)

Please enjoy listening, and know that Funk not only moves, it can remove, dig?

Pearl Bailey, For Adult Listening

Pearl Bailey could do more with a double entendre or a sly aside than lesser performers could do with explicit language.

Album of the Week, October 21, 2023

One thing I neglected to address in my review of Pearl Bailey’s 1957 recording A Broad was the double entendre in the title. That’s because I was saving it for the discussion of this week’s recording, which is basically one long series of double entendres after another. This, in fact, was Pearl’s primary career direction for many years.

Given her career start in vaudeville, Bailey’s devotion to the art of the subversively sexual song is unsurprising. This is, after all, an art form that had as its flip side the burlesque, that originally comic art form that eventually became more and more risqué. Still, the songs on this collection are more mockingly suggestive than explicit, in keeping with Pearl’s style. As she noted in a 1965 interview:

She believes an entertainer can express himself through more subtle means. Anyone who has seen a Pearl Bailey performance knows she gets a point across with a lackadaisical shrug of her shoulders, a lazy wave of the hand, or a roll of the eyes.

She demonstrated for Belli by singing, “Row, Row, Row,” the tale of a young man who rows, rows, rows his boat until he and his girl friend are alone . . . at last!

“Honey, I don’t have to spell it out,” Ms. Bailey said as she interrupted the song to make a point with Belli. “The audience knows this here fella ain’t rowing for the fun of it.”

This kind of treatment, she says, is performing.

So Pearl performed, across a series of late 1950s and early 1960s albums, with titles like Sings for Adults Only, Naughty but Nice, More Songs For Adults Only, and today’s record, released in 1962. Mildly risqué the lyrics might have been, but the production values had climbed substantially since the days of A Broad, with none other than swing arranger Don Redman conducting the orchestra. And most importantly, the quality of Pearl’s performance and her choice of material—both broad and sensitive, uptempo and ballad—make this a record worth seeking out.

The record starts with “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” by Andy Razaf and James P. Johnson, which seems designed as a catalog of low-intensity come-ons. “I will be the oil mug/if you’ll be the oil” is a couplet whose overt implications are lost to history but whose covert meaning is clear enough; likewise “I’ll be the washboard/if you’ll be the tub,” “I’ll be the shoe brush/if you’ll be the shoe,” and so forth. But Pearl invests all these couplets with all the sly energy she has, and it plays.

She pulls off the same trick on “A Man is a Necessary Evil,” where after cataloguing the faults of a man, she allows “But a man is a necessary evil/especially on a cold, cold night.” Her wry energy continues to power “The Gypsy Goofed,” as she faults the fortune teller for her man’s faults: “She told me that you loved me and said that you’d be true, but darlin’, she was wrong because you loved somebody new.”

Not all is fun and games on the album. “My Man” is a dark chanson that feels like it could have been sung by Edith Piaf, save for the English lyrics: “Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him!/I don’t know why I should/He isn’t good/He isn’t true/He beats me too/What can I do?” “You Waited Too Long” flips the script as Pearl tells her erstwhile paramour, “You waited too long/and now my heart is singing someone else’s song.”

Sweet Georgia Brown” brings the tempo back up, with Pearl hinting at the secret of Georgia Brown’s charm: “They all sigh, want to die/For sweet Georgia Brown/I’ll tell you why/you know I don’t lie … not much…” “Easy Street,” by contrast, is a languid ballad that extols the virtues of relaxation: “When opportunity comes knockin’, you just keep on rockin’, ’cause you know your fortune’s made.”

I Can’t Rock and Roll to Save My Soul” is, ironically, arranged as a rock song, opening with Pearl’s admonition to “oh, play that guitar!” She notes, “I am never known to slumber when they play a rhumba number, but I can’t rock and roll to save my soul.” There is a certain regrettable sameness about the lyrics of songs performed by big band and Sinatra era singers regarding the onslaught of Elvis, but Pearl sells this one through sheer exuberance.

There’s a Man in My Life,” a slow ballad by Fats Waller with George Marion Jr., regretfully notes, “There’s a man in my life, responsible for/the kind of life I lead/He’s the talk of my heart/When thoughts of him start/I find myself all a-tremble like a wind blown reed.” The quiet despair in her voice is offset by the following track, “Everybody Loves My Baby,” which confidently declares “my baby don’t love nobody but me.”

We return to the suggestive with “There’s Plenty More Where That Came From,” which asks, “Do you like my huggin’? Do you like it, hon? Well, if you like my lovin’ and my kissin’ and my huggin’, come and get it, son, ’cause there’s plenty more where that come from.” The uptempo songs continue into the finale, “That’s My Weakness Now,” in which Pearl declares, “He’s got eyes of blue/I never cared for eyes of blue/but he’s got eyes of blue/and that’s my weakness now.” At the end we hear the hint of naughtiness: “he likes a family/well, Pearl’s never liked a family/but this boy wants a family/so that’s my weakness now.”

Pearl wasn’t destined to do suggestive material forever, even material as mildly suggestive as this. She was also performing on Broadway, and her 1967 all-black cast performance in Camelot opposite Cab Calloway played to sold-out houses and earned her a Tony Award. She was still in that renaissance when I first saw her perform in 1978 on The Muppet Show. She would write four books, be appointed a special ambassador to the United Nations, and complete a degree in theology at Georgetown University before her death in 1990. As a performer, she had impeccable taste and an indomitable wit, and you can see both in her performance with Sgt. Floyd Pepper from that Muppet Show episode.

You can listen to today’s album (in a later, retitled reissue) here:

Pearl Bailey, A Broad

Pearl Bailey takes us around the world in this easygoing 1957 recording.

Album of the Week, October 14, 2023

The part of Virginia in which I grew up, Newport News, was not exactly a cultural center. Founded as a shipping center by Collis P. Huntington to bring coal from West Virginia to the port at Hampton Roads, and later to house a shipyard which still builds and refurbishes aircraft carriers and other Naval ships, it’s an industrial town with neighbors who are watermen or military families. (There are two active Army bases, a huge Navy base, an Air Force base, and many camp, post and station sized facilities scattered throughout the area. The grim joke among us in high school was that we’d be the first to go in the event of a thermonuclear missile strike.) Not the sort of place you normally look for world-class entertainers. And yet, not only did today’s artist call Newport News home, but so did many others—some of whom we’ll get to shortly.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born in Newport News (at 1204 and later 1202 29th Street) to the Reverend Joseph James and Ella Mae Ricks Bailey. The family moved to Washington, DC, and following her parents’ divorce, she moved to Philadelphia with her mother. Her older brother Bill Bailey had begun a career in tap dancing, and she won an amateur contest at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, which closed its doors during her very first two week engagement. Undeterred, she moved on to New York, won a contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and decided to become a professional performer. Her act, of which she was the headliner, consisted of both straight and comic song, and she performed it all over the US, ending up performing with the USO during World War II, in New York nightclubs, and on Broadway, while still recording and performing albums.

Today’s example is a fairly representative performance, a 1957 recording consisting of popular songs loosely connected to a theme of travel and international culture, and orchestrated by Roulette Records founders and producing pair Hugo Peretti & Luigi Creatore, a Brill Building partnership and pair of cousins known professionally as Hugo & Luigi.

Bailey takes “Non Dimenticar” straight except for bookending it with references to eating pizza, and a sly aside in the middle in which she asks, “I wonder if this guy would like a piece of my pizza pie?” In the followup, “South America, Take It Away,” she sings, “To put it plainly, I’m tired of shakin’ to that Pan-American plan,” and goes on to complain that, due to all the Latin American dances, “This makin’ with the quakin’ and the shakin’ of my bacon leaves me achin’.” On it goes through a catalogue of sambas, rumbas, and congas.

“Shein V’Di L’Vone” gives a slightly Russian (or Jewish) air to the proceedings, but is otherwise unremarkable. Cole Porter’s “C’Est Magnifique” fares better, and features Bailey embracing Porter’s comic ballad text with gusto: “Ooh la la la — that’s French, c’est cool French — c’est magnifique!” Better still is “Loch Lomond,” given a brisk tempo in an arrangement that is more swing than romantic ballad. The first side rounds out with “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?,” which was actually written about jazz musician Willard Bailey and his wife’s complaints about his irregular hours, rather than about Pearl’s older brother. It swings a little more than the usual Dixieland versions of the song, but the unnamed trumpeter gets a pretty great solo nonetheless.

“That’s What I Like About the North” opens the second side with a minor key ode to the great metropolises of the Northern parts of the United States “where people all get along.” “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis” keeps the travel inside the continental United States as a slow swing ballad. Together, the two songs are an interesting pair, with the first singing the praises of the North to encourage immigration from the southern states, only to bump up against the caution, “You’ve got ’em dropping by the wayside, a feeling I ain’t gonna know/You came a long way from St. Louis, but baby, you’ve got a long long way to go.”

Pearlie Mae returns to the topic of Latin dance with Steve Allen’s “Mambo, Tango, Samba, Calypso, Rhumba Blues,” which makes a great deal of the “Uh!” common to mambo recordings and complains about the pain in “muscles I don’t use,” observing “modern dance has shown me/how easily I bruise.” Arlen and Mercer’s “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home” returns to a more domestic theme, with a casual swing accompanying her never-ending tour itinerary.

Ballin’ the Jack” is that standard American song form, the dance craze song, and the second verse describes how one dances the “balling the jack,” involving putting your two knees close up tight, then sway to the left, then sway to the right,” which if I’m honest sounds like a recipe for tearing your meniscus. “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leaving Soon for New York,” by contrast, is given a slow balladic performance as Pearl Bailey gives a serious flair to the Gershwin standard, enticing the listener to travel once more with her to New York, as “that’s where we belong.”

Bailey was an entertainer first, but her performances were never without artistry—and a sly wink aside. Next time that wink will get even broader as we dig into another of her great albums.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Parliament, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

George Clinton’s most ambitious album marries funk, Afrofuturism and sharp philosophical critique to create a masterpiece.

Album of the Week, October 7, 2023

There are three albums to talk about in this review. In the first, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (“if you fake the funk, your nose will grow”) attempts to sway the citizens of Earth to abandon the cosmic secrets of funk for the placebo effect of the Pleasure Principle, but is foiled by the hero Star Child who renders him funky with the assistance of the Bop Gun. In the second, funk rhythms hide a sharp critique of materialist and medicated 20th century society and urge the listener to embrace the entelechic perfection of being through doing. And in the third, a veteran of the doo-wop and R&B scenes hones his concept of dance music to the highest degree in response to a challenge from the forward surge of disco music, creating a masterpiece that goes on to influence 80s pop and hip-hop. Welcome to the worlds of George Clinton, where low meets high and everything has multiple meanings.

Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1941, moved with his family to Plainfield, New Jersey, and formed a doo-wop group which he dubbed the Parliaments while still in his teens. He became a staff songwriter for Motown and had a hit with “I Wanna Testify” in the 1960s. When he lost the right to use the Parliaments name following a dispute with his label, he renamed the group Funkadelic (or so it was named by the group’s original bassist, William “Billy Bass” Nelson) and signed to Westwood Records in 1968. The newly renamed group pursued an aggressive form of funk-rock, heavy on guitars but with the original Parliaments—Clinton, Ray Davis, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas— on vocals. After regaining the rights to the name, he launched a second group, now called Parliament, featuring the same members as Funkadelic but with a more horn-forward funk flavor. The band went briefly dormant but relaunched in 1974, signing to Casablanca Records.

The history of the two bands is complicated, but briefly: Clinton’s early albums featured a mix of dance grooves and political consciousness, with “Chocolate City,” about the growing political power of African-Americans in Washington, DC, an early stand-out. Starting with Parliament’s third album Mothership Connection, Clinton swerved hard into Afrofuturism, introducing an entire mythology around the arrival of Parliament’s funk—P funk! Uncut funk! The bomb!—from outer space on the Mothership, thanks to the Star Child. The mythology got increasingly baroque; following albums introduced Dr. Funkenstein and his Afronauts, who laid upon Manchild the secrets of Clone Funk but later repossessed them, burying them in the pyramids until a more positive attitude toward funk could develop.

Which brings us to the current album. By this time, Parliament featured only Ray Davis of the original Parliaments, but had accrued a galaxy of talent, including composer and keyboard genius Bernie Worrell, bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarists Michael Hampton and Phelps Collins, guitarist/vocalists Glenn Goins and Garry Shider, drummer Jerome Brailey, and horn players Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and others. The Collins brothers and Wesley and Parker had formed the core of James Brown’s original J.B.s in 1970, playing on “Super Bad,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Soul Power,” and “Talking Loud and Sayin’ Nothin’,” among others, before leaving in a pay dispute. This band recorded the most unusual of Clinton’s records, marrying the cosmic funkography with slinky dance grooves. It also contributed to his cosmology, notably through a comic book that was included with the record.

The conflict between good and evil, or funk and placebo, is introduced on the opening track, “Bop Gun (Endangered Species).” The opening lines “Turn me loose/We shall overcome/Where did you get that funk from?/Turn them on/They’re spoiling the fun/Let’s shoot them with the Bop Gun” set up the album’s key themes of transcendence of struggle through music, and overcoming unfunky opponents with highly weaponized funk. The track features Clinton’s trademark repeated funk choruses (including a recurring admonition “don’t let your guard down”) over a repeated chromatic descending horn line, a slinky bass line that hangs around the seventh and the octave before ascending up from the depths in the bridge, and a tight drum line that keeps things solidly anchored to a 4/4 beat. Over it all is a superb vocal line from Glenn Goins, and the whole thing is shot through with bop gun effects courtesy Worrell’s Moog synthesizer and Bootsy’s bass. It’s a nine minute plus joyride.

The opposing team is introduced in “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (Pay Attention).” Sir Nose D’, as he’s referred to by the Star Child, doesn’t have many lines, but he is set up as the “subliminal seducer” who refuses to dance, and other lines suggest that he distracts the funky faithful with drugs. Star Child arrives and announces that he will protect the Pleasure Principle, the name under which the Clone Funk secrets appear on this album. The song itself leverages the “Three Blind Mice” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” nursery rhymes and melodies, transformed into a minor key. The call for vigilance repeats, this time with the Star Child calling upon the listener to “Pay Attention!”

Wizard of Finance” is the one song on the album in which Clinton mostly dispenses with the P-Funk cosmology for a doo-wop inspired, sax-forward romance song. It’s the shortest song on the album and the most straightforward, but still connects to the album through its rejection of money for the sake of money. Clinton’s narrator says “If I had plenty of money/I’d probably spend it all in one year/I’d be busy buying you flowers, girl/Just to show you I appreciate your being here.” The harmonies on the chorus are joyous and gospel inflected. On a lesser album it would be a standout track, but here it’s a respite before the second side of the album.

The title track “Funkentelechy” opens the second side with one of Clinton’s greatest admonishments, “Yo! This is Mood Control saying you might as well pay attention if you can’t afford free speech.” The Star Child urges the listener to be aware of attempts to supply fake alternatives to funk in the form of commercialism (“You deserve a break today! Have it your way!”) and self-medication (“When you’re taking every kind of pill/Nothing will ever cure your ill”). Instead, he offers funkentelechy, the condition of achieving complete self-actualization by staying in constant pursuit of funk. More or less. He never defines the word, but entelechy is a recognized philosophical concept dating back to Aristotle, and the invented word takes prime place in the bridge. The track sets up the battle between Mood Control, who seeks to pervert the Pleasure Principle with help from the self-indulgent Urge Overkill, and Mood De-Control, the home of the Funk. The track itself is an incredible layered jam, with at least six different chants and themes passing over each other to create a dizzying treatise on free will and self-indulgence.

The opposing force, the “Placebo Syndrome,” sounds pleasant enough, but pay attention—“You’re in the Syndrome/And the intensity of their sadness/Is equal to the intensity they enjoy.” Another song that leverages the vocal harmonies of the original Parliaments, this one goes in circles, ultimately fading out in an echo of the weakness induced by the Placebo Syndrome.

The spell is broken by Bernie Worrell’s mighty keyboards, opening “Flash Light.” Parliament’s biggest hit, it went to Number One on the R&B charts and rose to #16 on the Hot 100, largely on the strength of Worrell’s mighty synthesized bass line, played on multiple Minimoog synthesizers that were wired together. The song plays out the final confrontation between Sir Nose and the Star Child; the former is hit with the Flash Light from the Bop Gun, shouting, “Oh, funk me!” as the chorus sings, “Most of all he need the funk/help him find the funk.” But the power to spread the funk is universal, as the second chorus confirms: “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.” Musically there’s a lot going on with the track, with Clinton’s pitch shifted voice doing double duty as Sir Nose and Star Child, a rhythmic backdrop of guitars and handclaps, Bootsy Collins playing drums, a fierce Maceo sax line, and multiple layers of synth keyboards, all pulled together with that chromatic swaggering bass line on the Minimoog. There’s even a chant, “da da da dee da da da da da da da,” that Clinton borrowed from something he heard at a bar mitzvah.

Clinton’s Parliament never quite again hit the same heights of joyful inclusivity, nor the depths of philosophical inquiry, that they achieved on Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. Band members began to fall away after the follow-up, The Motor Booty Affair, due to disagreements over Clinton’s management of the band. But Clinton kept going, recording the solo album Computer Games and the hit single “Atomic Dog” in 1982, producing Freaky Styley for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, collaborating with Prince on Graffiti Bridge, and ultimately bringing back the P-Funk All Stars into the studio on 1996’s T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership). He still tours; I saw him and the band on November 13, 1999 for a show in which the band came out two hours late and played til dawn. Glenn Goins died in 1978 of lymphoma; Ray Davis passed away in 2005; both Phelps “Catfish” Collins and Garry Shider died of cancer in 2010; Cordell Mosson died of liver failure in 2013; and Bernie Worrell died of lung cancer in 2016. Bootsy, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Michael Hampton, Jerome Brailey, and George Clinton are still around, flash lights shining strong.

Next week we return to jazz, starting a series on two jazz singers who hailed from my home town. You can listen to today’s album here: