Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Album of the Week, December 2, 2023

It seems to have come from nowhere and to always have been here. For my lifetime, there has always been A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there has always been a jazz piano trio in the background playing to underscore Schulz’s scenes of comedy and pathos, as Charlie Brown and Linus (and Schroeder, Shermy, Violet, Pig-Pen, Frieda, Sally, Lucy and Snoopy) grapple with finding deeper meaning in a holiday designed to stay flashy and shallow at every turn. But it was by no means a destined work, and it was only through the happiest of accidents that Vince Guaraldi was signed up to write the soundtrack that made him famous, and brought jazz into the hearts of countless kids.

Charles Schulz started Peanuts in 1950, after several failed starts in comics (of which the single-panel strip “Li’l Folks” is probably the most worth seeking out). By the early 1960s, the strip was a complete phenomenon, having originated collections of books and merchandise as well as reaching broad nationwide syndication. But television had mostly eluded Schulz. Animated segments featuring the characters were produced for the Tennessee Ernie Ford TV show, but a documentary special, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was produced in 1963 but never picked up.

It was in the construction of that special that producer Lee Mendelson happened to be listening to the radio and heard Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (from the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus and never intended as a single— it was released in 1962 as the b-side to the bossa nova “Samba de Orpheus”) and hired him to record cues for the documentary. Guaraldi, excited, called Mendelson one night and played him “Linus and Lucy,” which apparently came to him fully formed. While the documentary was never released, Guaraldi released the album Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and this association set him up to continue working with Mendelson when the Coca-Cola Company agreed to sponsor A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Guaraldi convened a few different recording sessions between September 17 and October 28, 1965; the players were not noted on the session reels, but it appears Jerry Granelli and Fred Marshall played drums and bass on most of the session, with Colin Bailey and Monty Budwig appearing on a few tracks. Listening to the full sessions, which were released in a super deluxe edition last year, it’s apparent that Guaraldi brought most of the arrangements with him to the group, only working out a few in the studio.

O Tannenbaum” captures the vibe of the sessions from the beginning. Played solo by Guaraldi on the piano in free time during the first chorus, the drums and bass enter behind him at the beginning to the second and the piece clicks into a jazz shuffle. The sound is kept mellow; the drummer sticks to brushes throughout and the bassist stays to a simple walked line for the next few choruses. When the bass gets a solo chorus, the drummer adds some hits on the hi-hat and snare, but is still kept back in the mix, keeping the overall feeling mellow and contemplative.

What Child is This” appears late in the recording sessions. The traditional English carol, based on the tune “Greensleeves,” is opened with a rippling arpeggio that introduces the tune and repeats between verses; the tune is otherwise played straight by the combo, and the minor key reinforces the wistful feeling of the album. It’s a quick performance, over in only a few verses.

My Little Drum” sees the appearance of a lighter tone, with a children’s chorus (the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California) providing a vocalise over the trio. Credited to Guaraldi, the tune is a re-working of Katherine Davis’s “Carol of the Drum” aka “The Little Drummer Boy,” with the drummer adding some subtle salsa flavor behind the bass and piano, who mostly play the melody straight.

The more upbeat feeling continues with the soundtrack’s most famous song (and the first real Guaraldi composition), “Linus and Lucy.” The famous walking bass arpeggio is doubled in the left hand of the piano and the acoustic bass, while the drummer mostly keeps time with hits on 2 and 4 and a shaker. The first bridge veers over into samba territory, with the ensemble relaxing into the tune; the second bridge does a more straightforward blues with a walking bass line. It is more complicated to describe than it is to listen to; aurally it’s like a straight shot of dopamine to my Gen-X cortex.

Christmas Time is Here (instrumental)” appears twice on the album. The first rendition is kept simple by the trio, with the bass taking the second verse as a walking solo. The drum sticks to brushwork throughout; the final verse has a tremolo effect in both the piano and the arco bass. It’s delicate and wonderful, and more than a little wistful in the chord progression. The vocal version follows as the lead track of Side 2, and features the children’s choir singing lyrics that Lee Mendelson claims to have written on the back of an envelope in “about ten minutes.” The song has become a standard, having been covered by David Benoit, Ron Escheté, Patti Austin, Debby Boone, Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots, Khruangbin, Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, and El Vez, among others. Jerry Granelli once commented, “Vince always wanted to write a standard. So he made it.”

Skating,” another Guaraldi original, is less widely covered but no less delightful. A study in the use of arpeggios in melody, it’s a relaxed, jaunty melody that soundtracks one of the best physical comedy moments in the special, as Snoopy lures the kids out to skate on the ice only to play “crack the whip” and send them flying.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the number that closes the actual television special, here appears partway through side 2, with a children’s choir in full “loo loo loo” mode and Guaraldi on the Wurlitzer organ. It’s charming and you can hear the late night of the recording session in the kids’ voices; they were apparently taken for ice cream after the session concluded to compensate.

Christmas is Coming” is the last of the Guaraldi originals, and it’s a bop. The drummer is let off the leash as the band leans into the tune, bouncing between straight ahead jazz and the samba-inflected bridge. It would have been interesting to hear some of Guaraldi’s later bands, like the one on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, tackle this tune with a horn section.

Für Elise” signals one of the few appearances of Schroder as anything other than a background character, as he plays the Beethoven melody while Lucy tries vainly to get his attention. Robert Wells and Mel Tormé’s classic “The Christmas Song” follows, with a solo rendition by Guaraldi for the first verse and chorus; the bass and drums join quietly behind him for the second verse and chorus. Tormé and Wells’ classic has received many cover performances, definitively by Nat King Cole; this version plays it straight and it’s completely unaffected.

Greensleeves” was added to the definitive running order of the album with the first CD recording in 1988. An alternate version of “What Child Is This,” it was recorded late in the sessions, along with “The Christmas Song,” when the team realized they needed some additional songs to fill out the album. “Greensleeves” returns to the sound world of the second track with a slightly different arpeggiated interlude used in place of the triplets from the earlier track. Listening to the alternate tracks, it’s clear that Guaraldi and Mendelson were looking for a particular mood, trying and discarding arrangements that owed debts to Coltrane and to bossa nova. The band is allowed to stretch out more in this final track, adding a depth of exploratory sound to the album’s final four minutes and playing into different tonalities before concluding.

So we’ve wandered through Vince Guaraldi’s music, forwards and backwards, until we arrived at his most spectacular and most humble production. A Charlie Brown Christmas feels like a standard that has always existed because it captures the peaceful, meditative nature of the holiday alongside the frantic, mysterious, and joyful. Three of the tunes—“Skating,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Linus and Lucy”—can be said to have ascended to the realm of jazz and holiday standards. Not bad for 30 minutes of television anchored by a simple jazz piano trio. We’ll come back to Guaraldi once more at some point in the future as we wander through my collection; next week, though, we’ll touch a different Christmas tradition.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Album of the Week, November 25, 2023

Growing up, there were three Charlie Brown holiday specials that stood atop the podium of my favorite TV shows. At the top, A Charlie Brown Christmas. In the silver medal position, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. There were plenty other contenders for that last place on the podium, including It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (that hi-fi set in Woodstock’s birdhouse!) and It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (“Slouching towards Bethlehem, sir?”). But the third place on the podium (or maybe the second, depending on my mood) is A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

At this point in the specials, they were still collections of bits from the strips (Lucy pulling away the football makes an appearance at the beginning), combined with more well developed stories. So we get Snoopy and Woodstock (in his first animated appearance) as pilgrims, but we also get Linus inventing the first Friendsgiving, an early animated appearance of Franklin, the first animated appearance of Marcie, and more toast and jelly beans than you can shake a stick at.

You also get some superb Vince Guaraldi jazz. At this point, Guaraldi had been scoring Peanuts animated specials for nine years, and what started out as a trio had increasingly expanded in scope and sound. The joy was still there, as was the cool; what showed up on this record was horns! And vocals! And Fender Rhodes!

But it’s the mellow that shows up first, and this fully acoustic rendition of the “Charlie Brown Blues” is relaxed and maybe just a little bit funky, and appetizingly brief. It’s followed by the “Thanksgiving Theme,” in its first incarnation a ten-second tag played by Guaraldi on the acoustic piano—a series of inverted arpeggios that in lesser hands would be a finger exercise but here play out like a noble fanfare in 6/8 time. The theme is immediately reprised, with the first appearance of that Fender electric piano with the full trio (Seward McCain on bass, Mike Clark on drums), in which we hear the full theme including the bridge, played on Fender with a pretty heavy echoplex effect. It sounds like bells and is gorgeous.

Speaking of first appearances, at least in holiday-themed specials, we have Peppermint Patty, who gets her own theme. Her theme is more foursquare than the Thanksgiving theme, and just as with the character, soon spirals into hijinx, here courtesy of a flute solo over a funky obligato signaling the overhead flight of Woodstock.

Which brings us to “Little Birdie.” I first became aware of this song as a composition in its own right (rather than a bit of soundtrack behind the funniest series of sight gags in the special as Snoopy and Woodstock fight with the ping-pong table and chairs) courtesy of Wynton Marsalis’s Joe Cool’s Blues, in which the Ellis Marsalis Trio augmented by a full horn section and vocalist Germaine Bazzle turned in a funky performance of the tune. But the original version heard on this soundtrack is plenty funky in its own right, thanks to the horn section (trumpeter Tom Harrell arranged the brass, of whom Chuck Bennett is the only other credited player) and the vocals. I had long assumed a jazz singer (Lou Rawls, say) had popped up on the track; imagine my delight when it turns out that Guaraldi himself sang the tune! The song captures the interplay between Snoopy and Woodstock perfectly.

The “Thanksgiving Interlude” follows, followed by “Is it James or Charlie?,” featuring an uncredited but tasty guitar solo over a series of vamping chords that does nothing so much as continue the mood of the earlier pieces as Charlie Brown’s friends arrive. Linus’s arrival to help cook the popcorn and toast is signaled by the only appearance in the special of the classic “Linus and Lucy” theme, here augmented by brass.

The only composition by orchestrator John Scott Trotter (who did some of the instrumental bits in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), the “Fife and Drums Theme” is what it says on the tin, albeit augmented by electric bass and funky keyboards.

The rest of the special is soundtracked by reprises of the themes we’ve already heard: “Charlie Brown Blues,” the “Thanksgiving Interlude” and two reprises of the “Thanksgiving Theme” follow in pretty rapid succession. The rest of the record is rounded out by alternate takes of the different tunes, some of which (“Is It James or Charlie? (Bonus Mix with Whistling)”, “Thanksgiving Interlude (Alt Take 14)”) are noteworthy all by themselves; others (“Clark and Guaraldi”) are tantalizing glimpses into the process of putting the record together in the studio.

A note about the record: issued this year, this soundtrack recording of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving almost wasn’t; it was never issued as a standalone album before now, and some of the tunes were included on compilations with the special effects tracks over them, as that was the only way they survived. When Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson passed away in December 2019, his children began looking through his house for material related to the Peanuts specials, uncovering the original session tapes for this album as well as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s a miraculous discovery; without the effects track, the tunes stand out as warm and friendly, yet deeply funky. One wonders what Guaraldi would have gone on to do had he not passed away unexpectedly three years later from a sudden heart attack. Next time we’ll hear where Guaraldi’s journey with Charles Schulz’s characters really hit its stride.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Nina Simone, Pastel Blues

Album of the Week, November 18, 2023

Today’s album features a singer who was born in the mid-Atlantic South, moved to New York, and got her claim to fame after playing shows on small stages. But that’s where the similarity with Pearl Bailey or Ella Fitzgerald ends. Nina Simone fused completely different traditions of classical and blues together with activism and created a completely different, and unforgettable, American sound.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina, a small town in Polk County on the southwestern border of the state, in what was once Cherokee country. Born to a father who was a barber and dry cleaner as well as an entertainer, and a mother who was a Methodist preacher, she began playing the piano at a young age and gave her first concert at the age of 12. During the concert, her parents were forced to give up their seats for white patrons and move to the back of the hall; Eunice stopped playing until they were moved back to the front. She attended the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville with the help of a scholarship set up for her by her music teacher. She studied at Juilliard in the summer of 1950 to prepare to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her application was denied. She began playing shows at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey to fund her private piano lessons, taking the performing name Nina Simone to keep her family from finding out that she was playing the Devil’s music.

Her recording career commenced in 1958 with a recording of “I Loves You, Porgy” which cracked the Billboard Top 20; her debut album Little Girl Blue followed. She recorded a series of albums on Bethlehem and Colpix Records, and moved to Philips in 1964. The new label’s European ownership gave her greater topical freedom, and she responded with a broader range of songs that addressed racial injustice, including “Mississippi Goddam,” which protested the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September. She recorded seven albums for Philips with producer Hal Mooney; Pastel Blues was her third. True to its name, it blended her classical training with blues, jazz and other influences for a powerful mixture.

Take “Be My Husband.” Performed by Simone as a solo song accompanied only by the hi-hat of the drummer and her own handclaps, the album opens with a stark landscape of a marriage proposal as a desperate prison chant. It’s harrowing, especially given that it was written by Andy Stroud, her husband and manager, who was accused of beating her. (The singer Jeff Buckley chose to cover this song, in a gender reversal, to open his sets at the cafe Sin-É, as well as covering another Nina tune, “Lilac Wine,” on his debut album.)

The choice of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” an early 20th century blues made famous by Bessie Smith, further connects Simone’s writing to the blues tradition. “End of the Line,” by contrast, connects to the melancholy tradition in European classical art song, sounding like a Schubert lieder in its unaccompanied opening before the rest of the band joins on the second verse.

Nina had recorded the venerable vaudeville blues song “Trouble in Mind” with a larger band in 1961, with a recording that hit number 11 on the R&B chart and 92 on the Billboard Hot 100. The version here is more stripped down, but still features electric guitar alongside Nina’s stride-influenced piano.

Tell Me More and More and Then Some” was originally recorded with a full band by Billie Holiday; here a swampy harmonica lends it a deeper Delta blues feel, while Nina’s piano veers between classical harmonies and blues scales.

Side two opens with “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” a major key blues written by producer Hermann Krasnow, better known for his work with Gene Autry on “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Nina turns it into a barn burner, with her piano lending a slightly unsettled undercurrent of menace beneath the bright chords as she sings about fleeing for better weather. “Ain’t No Use” continues in the same key, but a slower, more deliberate blues, with the narrator making it clear that she is fleeing not just the chilly winds but her partner, telling him he is “just too doggone mean.”

Strange Fruit” takes another Billie Holiday song, perhaps the most famous of all, and strips it down to the most devastating essentials as Simone sings about lynched African Americans. Simone’s version is almost unaccompanied, and almost silent at the end, as she veers from anger to grief.

That brings us to “Sinnerman,” in which all Simone’s considerable talents come together to create a masterpiece. The piano accompaniment, informed by both her classical training and African-American pentatonic scales, is the foundation together with the drums (Bobby Hamilton) and bass (Lisle Atkinson) from which Simone’s voice narrates the fate of the sinner: turned away by the Lord, he seeks the devil instead. When he finds him, he cries “Power” to the Lord, but the Lord can no longer help him. Nina and the band exchange a call and response on “Power!/Power, Lord” for a full two minutes before the vocals and piano fall away, leaving the guitars (Al Schackman, Rudy Stevenson) to exchange notes before they too cease. There follows polyrhythmic hand percussion, and the piano comes back in, first in rhythm, then with powerful chords in the left hand signaling a shift. Sure enough, the rhythm changes to a slow six for about 32 bars before the chorus comes back. Simone recapitulates the journey of the sinner, asking for succor from the river, the sea, the rock, and the Lord once more. The whole track clocks in at over ten minutes of apocalyptic blues fury. It’s a brilliant response to the horror of “Strange Fruit” and an impossible-to-top capstone for the album.

Simone left American in 1970, frustrated at the poor reception for her recordings, and found when she tried to return that she was wanted for tax evasion; allegedly she had stopped paying taxes in protest against the Vietnam War. She fled to Barbados, then Liberia, then the Netherlands. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and medication helped her regain some measure of peace. She settled in the town of Carry-le-Route, in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. She died there of breast cancer, in 2003.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Ella Fitzgerald, Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book (Vol. 1)

Album of the Week, November 11, 2023

My hometown of Newport News, Virginia remembers Ella Fitzgerald as perhaps its most famous native daughter, naming a middle school, auditorium, street, and music festival after her. But there is little physical evidence of her presence in the city. The house where she spent the first three years of her life stood at 2050 Madison Avenue, but no longer appears to stand there, and there is no historical marker; the mural dedicated to Fitzgerald stands a block away. Fitzgerald made her way with her family to New York, and ultimately made her mark in Harlem and on the circuit.

Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin made a similar pilgrimage. Born Israel Beilin in Tyumen, Siberia in 1888 and raised in the shtetl of Tolochin in Belarus, Berlin’s sole memory of his first five years in Russia was watching his family house burn to the ground. The family emigrated to escape the poverty, discrimination and pogroms of Imperial Russia, sailing through Antwerp on the Red Star Line and arriving at Ellis Island in September 1893, where their name was naturalized to Baline. Life in the city was crowded and it was hard for him to make money as a newsboy, so he left the family apartment and moved into a Lower East Side lodging house.

Berlin worked as a singing waiter and a song plugger, taught himself to play piano after hours at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, and published his first song. Moving to Jimmy Kelly’s in Union Square, he began collaborating with other young songwriters and got a big break as a staff lyricist for the Ted Snyder Company. He began publishing works with his own music as well as lyrics, and in 1910 wrote his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song was a lasting hit, earning him spotlights at vaudeville shows and climbing the charts to Number 1 a dozen times in its first fifty years of publication. Gershwin called it “the first real American musical work,” and Berlin decided to continue to follow the model. He soon broke away from ragtime and began writing more complex melodies and ballads, as well as revues and Broadway shows. By the time that Fitzgerald began performing in the 1930s, Berlin was more than twenty years into a successful career as a songwriter, and his songs were like oxygen in the atmosphere.

The performances that Ella delivers on Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book (or at least in Volume 1, which is the record that I have in my collection) mostly hew to the sophisticated, rather than the raggy, side of the line, thanks in part to Paul Weston’s subtle orchestration. Indeed, the opening performance of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” might just be the definitive version of a song that was premiered by Fred Astaire (in the film Follow the Fleet) and famously performed by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, and others. (We’ll get to a modern-day performance of the song in a later post.) Ella’s version starts out somber rather than swinging, but then kicks into high gear as the chorus pivots from minor to major. Ella’s voice similarly starts in a low contralto range but climbs as the the song swings into the major key, ultimately sounding a triumphant note as the “dance” section ends, performed by a jazz trio rather than the full orchestra.

There are a few performances on the record where exuberance is uncolored by regret. Ella’s version of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is one, with what sounds like a full Dixieland band swinging hard behind her. “Top Hat, White Tie, And Tails” is the rhythmic cousin to “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” with both finding Berlin with a keen interest in American sartorial splendor and in splendid syncopation.

The great “Cheek to Cheek,” which like “Top Hat” appeared for the first time in Berlin’s movie musical Top Hat and was premiered by Fred Astaire, gets a gentle cha-cha rhythm here, And “I Used to Be Color Blind” is that rare thing on the record, a purely lovely love song.

On the purely melancholic side, “Russian Lullaby” expresses the immigrant’s remembered anxiety in his homeland, with the words, “Just a little plaintive tune/When baby starts to cry/Rock-a-bye my baby/Somewhere there may be/A land that’s free for you and me” forming almost the entirety of the song. “How Deep is the Ocean” mingles an expression of undying love with an unusual rhetorical device—the entire song takes the form of questions, save for one line, “I’ll tell you no lie.” It’s a devastatingly subtle example of the depth of Berlin’s songwriting throughout the album.

The Irving Berlin Song Book was the fourth installment in Ella’s Song Book series; released in 1958, it followed Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and Duke Ellington. She would record four more entries in the series, releasing volumes devoted to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer, before leaving Verve in 1966 for Capitol Records, then for Reprise. Along the way she recorded a slew of other classic records, including her famed Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas! and my personal favorite, the underrated Ella, on which she covered songs by Smokey Robinson, Randy Newman, Bacharach/David, and the Beatles. (Yes, really.) She performed well into her 70s, finally retiring three years before her death in 1996. Her influence as a trailblazer for jazz singers, female performers, and serious interpreters of the Great American Song Book remains a lasting testimony to her greatness. The great female jazz singers who followed Ella, indeed, either had to sing in her shadow or find radically different performing voices. We’ll listen to someone in the latter camp next time.

You can listen to the full two-volume set of the Irving Berlin Song Book here:

Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book (Vol. 2)

Ella produces unhurried, definitive versions of songs from the Great American Songbook.

Album of the Week, November 4, 2023

If you say “female jazz singer,” odds are you think about today’s artist. We’ve covered a few of her recordings before, but today we dig into one of the recordings that led to her towering reputation—her surveys of the Great American Song Book.

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, almost exactly eleven months before Pearl Bailey, and she spent the first two and a half years of her life there, near the great coal port that had been built by Collis P. Huntington. Her mother and her new partner moved with Ella to Yonkers in Westchester County, New York. An excellent student, her grades began to suffer after her mother’s death of injuries sustained in a car crash. She moved to her aunt’s in Harlem and took a series of odd jobs, including lookout at a bordello and a numbers runner. She was caught by the police and placed in a series of reform schools.

In 1933 and 1934, she began singing on the street, and in 1934 she won first prize at one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theatre. Like Pearl Bailey, she never was able to perform the week-long engagement that formed part of that earliest award, but later won a gig at the Harlem Opera House. In late 1935 she met bandleader Chick Webb and joined his band for their performances at the Savoy Theatre in Harlem. She recorded several hit songs, becoming best known for “A Tisket, A-Tasket.” When Webb died of spinal tuberculosis in 1939, she took on his band, which became known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

By 1942 the band had grown difficult to maintain, and she took on solo work, eventually learning (and evolving) scat singing while performing with Dizzy Gillespie and revolutionizing the art of vocal jazz in the process. She recorded for Decca during this period. When she began appearing at Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series, he convinced her to leave Decca for a new label he would found with her at the center, and thus Verve Records was created. At Verve, with be-bop flagging and audiences shifting, she and Granz created the Songbook series as a way to give her a more serious outlet for her voice. In the series, which consisted of recordings dedicated to songwriters or lyricists, she and Granz essentially memorialized the concept of the Great American Songbook, recording definitive versions of many of the twentieth century’s great songs.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book, released in 1956, was the second entrant in the series, and follows the formula. Across two volumes, she recorded the greatest songs by the duo, in arrangements by a great arranger and bandleader, in this case Buddy Bregman. I’ll be reviewing the second volume today since that’s the one that washed up in my local used record store.

I listened to today’s record while driving around with my daughter, who knows Ella’s voice by ear but has mostly heard the Christmas album. After a few seconds of the chorus of “Give It Back to the Indians,” she asked, “Um, when was this recorded?” When I told her the record dates to 1956, she said, “Ah, that explains it.” The original context, in the 1939 musical Too Many Girls, doesn’t really help explain why we’re singing about Peter Minuit swindling the Lenape tribe out of the island of Manhattan. But the song itself is a great exasperated shout out to the charms and frustrations of New York.

Some of the songs on the album live up to Lorenz Hart’s reputation as one of the most depressed lyricists around. “Ten Cents a Dance” and its evocation of the desperation of poverty, the inability to escape at the low rate of ten cents a dance, and especially the inability to escape her undesirable beaus, might be the emotional low point. Others, like “Ev’rything I’ve Got,” just feel manic. The latter, coming (like June Christy’s “Nobody’s Heart”) from By Jupiter, is a battle-of-the sexes song with these mind-boggling lines:

I have eyes for you to give you dirty looks
I have words that do not come from children’s books
There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do
And ev’rything I’ve got belongs to you
I’ve a powerful anesthesia in my fist
And the perfect wrist to give your neck atwist
There are hammerlock holds
I’ve mastered a few
And ev’rything I’ve got belongs to you

Then of course there’s “My Funny Valentine.” One feature of the Song Books is that without fail Ella would sing the whole song, including the verses, for songs that usually in the jazz tradition only get heard as their choruses. So it is with “Valentine.” In this case, one forgives the jazz artists, as both the melody and lyrics of the verse are essentially disposable, serving only to set up the odd couple of the song’s central tragedy, or romance, or both. In Ella’s rendition, the pathos and hope of the relationship are mingled through the whole performance.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is another of the great songs, notable for its unusually suggestive lyrics, including “Vexed again, perplexed again/
Thank God, I can be oversexed again,” and “Romance, finis; your chance, finis/
Those ants that invaded my pants, finis.” Ella sings them with a mix of cool restraint, humor and simmering emotion that is simply stunning.

Not all the arrangements feature the full big band. “Wait ‘Till You See Him,” also from By Jupiter, features Ella’s voice accompanied only by a guitar. It’s brief, restrained, and utterly flawless. It leads straight into “Lover,” which is given a full big band treatment; the impression is of shock and awe. Ella’s “Lover” narrator is leaving nothing to chance.

The album closes out with “Blue Moon,” a song that went through three different sets of lyrics before becoming the standard that would later be covered by the Marcels, Elvis Presley, and the Cowboy Junkies. Here it’s a sweeping, slightly swooning ballad, with the romance cut slightly by Ella’s no-nonsense reading of the bridge: “And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will hold.”

There are other songs on the record, but honestly this is one that just needs listening. Each performance ranks as the finest version of these great songs, and Ella just kept doing them. She would record six records in the Song Book series; we’ll hear another next week.

You can hear the full two volume version of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook below. If you just want to hear the second volume, start at Track 18, then swap out “My Romance” for “Mountain Greenery.”

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:

Sly and the Family Stone, Fresh

The #albumoftheweek visits a joyful looking album that has some ominous shadows around the edges, along with some of the greatest funk ever.

Album of the Week, September 30, 2023

I want to take a moment before I start this week’s Album of the Week to talk about Larry Graham, who is not on this album. But he was on the last Sly and the Family Stone album that I reviewed. I didn’t say a lot about him then, but as the first bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, the inventor of the slap bass technique, the founder of funk band Graham Central Station, a key collaborator with Prince in the 1990s (credited with introducing the Purple One to Jehovah’s Witnesses!)—his funk bona fides are without question. So when I say that somehow, this first album by Sly and the Family Stone to not feature Graham is even funkier than the ones that came before, it says something about the sheer amount of funk rolling around in Sly Stone’s being.

Sonically the record feels slightly more subdued than Stand!, perhaps because of the shift away from guitars to a more drum and bass driven sound. According to legend, Miles Davis made his band listen to the opening song, “In Time,” on repeat for over thirty minutes; it’s hard to know if this actually happened, but Stephen Davis’s contemporaneous review of the album in Rolling Stone talks about Miles’s admiration for Sly, and you can hear some of the influence in the best of the early 1970s fusion material that Miles cut (for instance, on the Champions compilation). “In Time” repays that kind of close listening; it’s got everything from a rocking opening (here driven by organ and brass rather than guitars) to an intricate interlocking rhythm line that has enough going on that it confused the Rolling Stone reviewer into thinking that it was in 3/5 time. But the song is solidly in funk territory; as George Clinton once proclaimed, “everything is on the one.”

If You Want Me To Stay” is probably my favorite of Sly’s songs (though “Loose Booty,” from the follow up album Small Talk, is a superior funk jam). The simmering melody stays in a minor mode throughout, powered by a slinky bass line from Rusty Allen (or possibly Sly himself; it’s thought that he played all the instruments on this track). The lyrics are classic Sly word salad, but in the middle of it there’s the couplet “I’ll be good, I wish I could/get the message over to you now,” and there might not be a finer encapsulation of the “please take me back” archetype anywhere on record. It’s over in three minutes, but what a jam.

Let Me Have It All” is an ominous groove on a similar theme, with Sly directly asking “You set up a barrier/Don’t you know I’d marry ya/Can’t explain how you make me feel/Don’t you know I’m feeling real.” The song never moves off its opening minor chord, and is in and out before you know it, again clocking in under three minutes. The mood lightens slightly for “Frisky,” but the lyrics, which celebrate his drug use, are bleak in retrospect, as his habit made him progressively more unreliable and ultimately cost him his band and career.

Thankful ’n’ Thoughtful” lends an emotional core to the album. While powered by the same funk power, the track finds him singing his gratitude for being alive over that continuous groove. In what might be his only mention of his family on record, he reports “People got to be reminded where it’s really at/
Make your daddy happy and mama, your mama like it like that.” By contrast, “Skin I’m In” is a defiant statement that “if I could do it all over again/I’d be in the same skin I’m in.” The brief interlude contains one of the most complex harmonic chord progressions on the album, including a short bridge with a pulsating horn section that might be one of the great riffs in funk.

Side Two continues with “I Don’t Know (Satisfaction),” which might be a civil rights call to arms under the funk and Rolling Stones allusions. Sly’s lyrics feature a triple rhyme which lends punch to lines like “I see abuse, what’s the use/Time must let my people loose.” The song repeats the same groove over and over, building up to a crescendo before dropping to the fade out. “Keep on Dancin’” has a little more harmonic variety, opening with a downright threatening bass line before the backing vocalists sing the opening hook. The echo of the early Sly hit “Dance to the Music” lightens the track a bit, but there’s still the shadow of drug abuse lurking over the track with Sly saying “I’d get snowed in if I could.”

Perhaps the most unlikely track on the album is the band’s cover of “Qué Séra, Séra,” which begins as a more or less straight cover with Rose Stone singing the melody in a straight Doris Day voice. Then the chorus… the Family Stone take the tune to church, with Sly’s organ playing providing gospel notes under the family’s stacked harmonies.

If It Were Left Up to Me” is in a completely different vocal space from the rest of the album, featuring lead vocals from Rose Stone and harmonies from Little Sister. It was apparently recorded in 1970 for an intended Little Sister album, but was shelved until the song surfaced on Fresh. The melody is a breath of fresh air, carrying some of the optimism of the earlier Sly and the Family Stone albums.

Babies Makin’ Babies” is more in the pocket than the proceeding song, but still has some of the more ambitious harmonies and a great stacked-harmony chorus from Little Sister. Before I heard the track, I was convinced I was going to hear social commentary, but it turns out to be a funk chant with more word-salad lyrics. But what a funk chant! The groove is deep, folks.

Sly would record one more album, the aforementioned Small Talk, with the original Sly and the Family Stone, but his mental state had already begun deteriorating into paranoia and he started missing gigs. The band dissolved after booking Radio City Music Hall but only filling it to 1/8th capacity, having to scrape together money to make it back to Los Angeles. His subsequent career petered out by the mid-1980s. In 2010 he filed suit against his former manager, and was alleged to be homeless and living in a van in 2011. He is, apparently, still alive, and will release an autobiography this fall, but others have picked up the funk torch. We’ll hear from one of the most significant of those bands next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry and songs intersect with jazz, funk and the blues to paint a rich portrait of black poverty and despair.

Album of the Week, September 23, 2023

In this short series about funk, Gil Scott-Heron would seem to be an unlikely choice. A poet, militant, novelist, spoken-word artist, Scott-Heron was not a musician by calling. Indeed, he called himself a “bluesologist,” a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues. But, thanks to two important collaborations, Scott-Heron has a place not only among the progenitors of funk but among the ancestors of hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, to an opera singer mother and a Jamaican soccer player. His parents separated when he was young, and he went to live with his grandmother Bobbie Scott, a civil rights activist who introduced him to the works of Langston Hughes and to the piano, in Jackson, Tennessee. On his grandmother’s death, he moved to live with his mother in The Bronx. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School but transferred to the Fieldston School on a full scholarship for writing. He was known as much for his acerbic wit and keen sense of social irony as his writing; when asked in an admissions interview how he would feel if he saw one of his classmates drive by in an limousine while he walked, he asked the interviewer, “Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?” He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania, because Langston Hughes had done so.

It was at Lincoln University that he met one of his most important collaborators, the musician Brian Jackson, with whom he formed a band. Jackson was to collaborate with him throughout the 1970s. At Lincoln, he also attended a performance by the Last Poets, an incendiary spoken word ensemble who are today held to be among the forerunners of hip-hop, and asked them “Listen, can I start a group like you guys?” He left school to work on his debut novel, Vulture, and moved to New York City, where he met the other significant collaborator, jazz musician and producer Bob Thiele.

Thiele had gotten his start in the record business working for Creed Taylor, and served as the head of Impulse Records following Taylor’s departure for Verve. In his eight years at Impulse, he produced the most significant of John Coltrane’s late works, including Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Impressions, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Meditations, and Ascension. He also produced many other significant albums for Impulse, which was by this point a division of ABC Records, including Freddie Hubbard’s The Body and the Soul, and co-wrote the song “What a Wonderful World.”

The collaboration with Louis Armstrong on this (eventual) hit song led to a breakdown in relations between Thiele and ABC Records president Larry Newton. Apparently Newton was expecting a Dixieland style album from Armstrong, and when he learned that Thiele was recording him performing “Wonderful World,” a ballad, an argument began that escalated into a screaming match, with Newton ultimately being ejected from the recording studio and left yelling and banging on the door outside. Thiele left ABC shortly after and started his own label, Flying Dutchman. One of the first artists he convinced to record with him was Gil Scott-Heron.

The artist recorded three albums for Flying Dutchman, as well as today’s release, a 1974 compilation drawn from the first three releases after Scott-Heron departed for the Strata-East label. Gil’s debut album on Flying Dutchman, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was a live session of poetry with accompaniment from Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals, as well as Thiele himself on piano and guitar. The album did not chart, but it did feature the poems “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” performed as spoken word pieces with percussion accompaniment.

The two albums that followed were entirely different. For Pieces of a Man, Brian Jackson joined as musical director, and Thiele assembled an enviable cast of musicians to join them, including Ron Carter on electric bass, Hubert Laws on flute, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Burt Jones on electric guitar. Jackson’s musical perspective combined with Scott-Heron’s bluesy melodic writing is what connects this album to the funk of Sly and the Family Stone—along with a similar perspective on race relations. For the album, Scott-Heron re-recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the new band, and the combination of Carter on bass, Purdie on drums, Hubert Laws’ anxious flute obbligato, and Scott-Heron’s intense spoken word work laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Carter’s bass in particular is tense and apocalyptic throughout the track, underscoring the fierce conflict in Scott-Heron’s poem between our commercial culture and the economic struggles of Black people:

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

As if to underscore the diversity of Scott-Heron’s lyrical agenda, “Sex Education: Ghetto Style”, from his third album Free Will, is another spoken word poem that slyly pokes fun at his own sexual coming of age. The performance style is closer to the music of Small Talk with the important addition of Jackson on flute. The rest of the Pieces of a Man band, except for Carter, returned for this album, and it featured a blend of spoken word and more traditional songs, including the next track, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues,” with Jackson’s bluesy piano complemented by David Spinozza’s guitar.

No Knock” comes from the same sessions, but is spiritually closer to “Revolution” in spirit and to “Sex Education” in conception, with Jackson on flute alongside percussionists and Scott-Heron’s rap. The original album features a spoken word intro to the performance from Scott-Heron that sets the context:

Um, we want to do a poem for one of our unfavorite people, um, who’s now the head of the, uh, Nixon campaign. He was formerly the Attorney General named John Mitchell. … no-knock, the law in particular, was allegedly, um, aheh, legislated for black people rather than, you know, for their destruction. And it means, simply, that authorities and members of the police force no longer have to knock on your door before entering. They can now knock your door down. This is No Knock. 

Gil Scott-Heron, “No Knock”

The compilation now transitions into one of Scott-Heron’s greatest collaborations with Jackson, the great “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from Pieces. Scott-Heron’s second album was the most introspective of his works, featuring multiple songs from the perspective of different sides of the Black experience, as well as this joyful, bluesy celebration of the power of jazz music. For me, the musical highlights are Carter’s bass line and Jackson’s Fender Rhodes solo after the second verse.

The compilation follows this track with the title track to “Pieces of a Man,” a ballad on acoustic piano and bass that tracks the disintegration of the narrator’s father, describing his violent outbursts and his despair at being fired from his job, leading to his arrest. The song might be Scott-Heron’s masterwork, fusing powerful metaphoric writing with an impassioned vocal. Scott-Heron’s narrator is only one of the examples of broken Black males to be found in his writing; “Home is Where the Hatred Is” (the following track) is written from the point of view of a heroin addict, who struggles to get clean while recognizing that returning “home” to his sobriety means having to confront the pain of his existence: “Home is where the needle marks/Tried to heal my broken heart/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never/Went home again.”

Brother” flips the perspective again, calling out hypocritical Black men who take on the outward trappings of Black liberation while not actually helping their brothers and sisters, in one of the earliest spoken recordings on this set. The compilation pairs the poem with another track from Pieces, but “Save the Children” is short on specifics on how exactly the children should be saved from the harsh reality of African-American life that will confront them when they grow up, though it’s another gorgeous collaboration with Jackson.

Whitey on the Moon” might be the most famous of Scott-Heron’s poems after “Revolution,” and for good reason, as he points out the uncomfortable gulf between the accomplishments of the Apollo program and the economic state of Black America. As I’ve written before, I’m a NASA kid, and proud of our accomplishments in space, but Scott-Heron’s poem points out that in our national choices on spending priorities in the 1960s between the space race, Vietnam, and Johnson’s War on Poverty, he could only see outcomes from two of the three.

The compilation closes with “Did You Hear What They Said?” from Free Will. The darkest of Scott-Heron’s early collaborations with Brian Jackson, the paean for a dead Black man—“They said another brother’s dead/They said he’s dead but he can’t be buried”—might be the most desolate lines he wrote. Accompanied by Hubert Laws’ flute, the closing thought, “This can’t be real,” reflects Scott-Heron’s loss of hope following the death, which evokes both Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the deaths of Black men from crime and police brutality.

The compilation as a whole is a powerful and complex representation of Scott-Heron’s legacy, and a good introduction to his work. But it deliberately ends in denial of the hope represented by some of his early songs, foreshadowing Scott-Heron’s own journey. His post-Flying Dutchman recordings with Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band were triumphant, but they acrimoniously split in 1980. Scott-Heron recorded sporadically after, and seemed to spiral slowly downward. Addicted to crack cocaine, he spent time in prison for drug possession, and recorded one last album in 2010, the harrowing I’m New Here, before his death in 2011, following reports of pneumonia and that he was HIV positive.

There are no easy answers in Gil Scott-Heron’s story, but I prefer to hold onto the gestures toward hope in his best songs. Next week we’ll visit another album from a performer struggling with addiction, who nevertheless continued to make vital, even joyous music.

There wasn’t an official playlist or full-album version of this compilation on YouTube, oddly, so I made my own. You can listen to it here:

Sly and the Family Stone, Stand!

The #albumoftheweek swerves into the funk lane, checking out Sly and the Family Stone’s first big hit.

Album of the Week, September 16, 2023

After spending the better part of six months exploring the intersection of jazz and funk music through the catalog of CTI Records, I thought it might be fun to dig into the other side of the equation and talk about funk for a bit. This is going to be a brief, non-encyclopedic peek, because I don’t have some of the records that should really be at the foundation of this discussion. No James Brown, no Funkadelic… But I do have a few that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, so let’s dig in.

Sylvester Stewart was born in Texas in 1943, but his family moved to California when he was young, and you can hear it in his music—a sense of sunny optimism that shines through many of the tracks on Stand!. After singing in doo-wop groups and spending time as a DJ, he formed the band Sly and the Family Stone with his brother Freddie and his sister Rose, both of whom took the Stone stage name as their surnames. The band featured an integrated line-up, following the example of Sly’s high-school doo-wop group; an exciting line-up of vocalists; a great horn section; and the combination of Stone’s rock-influenced guitar and Larry Graham’s relentlessly funky bass.

All the group’s features are in full display on the album’s title track. “Stand!” starts out as a pretty straightforward rock song… for about four bars, until it changes keys in the second half of the verse. A chugging guitar and bass combo leads to the ecstatic chorus. The second verse follows the pattern of the first, and the second chorus starts the same way—and then an abrupt cut into funkytown plays out the last minute of the track, with an incredible syncopated bass pattern on the base and fifth from Larry Graham. Apparently Sly tested the song in a San Francisco club, got a lukewarm response, and went back and recorded the ending with a group of studio musicians.

The second track swerves hard into psychedelia. “Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey” has one of the great (if unprintable) titles of 1960s rock, and the verse (sung by Rose Stone) suggests irreconcilable racial tension and a weariness after the difficult 1960s:

Well, I went down across the country
And I heard two voices ring
They were talkin’ funky to each other
And neither other could change a thing

“Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey”

The rest of the track is pure psychedelic funk, with distorted vocals reminiscent of a harmonica solo over a fiery guitar solo. It wouldn’t be out of place on an early Funkadelic album.

I Want to Take You Higher” is one of the great bits of synthesis on the album, as the pessimistic blues funk of the second track meets the relentless singalong optimism of the first. A gutbucket harmonica line alternates between solo and backing as each of the band’s five vocalists takes turns on the verse, with stacked harmonies on the chorus. But the most amazing feature on the song has to be the locked in rhythm section, with Graham, drummer Larry Errico, a chugging rhythm guitar, and handclaps hold the line ominously and doggedly on the tonic. The narrator may want to take you higher, but something is decidedly anchoring him to something a lot lower.

Somebody’s Watching You” again starts out sounding like a pop song, with the verse’s alternating vocals from Sly and the Little Sister backing group over a great trumpet line from Cynthia Robinson. But Sly’s funky organ and the gospel inflected chorus bring the track out of the polite airwaves and into a much funkier place.

Sing a Simple Song” is a straight ahead funk onslaught, with the band’s secret weapon Rose Stone opening up with one of the bluesiest “yeah, yeah, yeah” openings on record. After the second verse everyone drops out except for drums and trumpet for a moment of pure funk satori. The instruments suddenly drop out behind the vocalists with ten seconds left in the track, to reveal Sly and Rose trading lines with Little Sister behind. It’s a stunner.

Everyday People,” ironically, had the longest afterlife of any song on the album, thanks to its use in the late 1990s by Toyota for an ad campaign. It deserves its fame for the great songwriting—a chugging bassline behind a low-pitched verse; the trumpet ratcheting up the tension to the chorus an octave higher, with the voices leaning in from the ninth; and the great B part with Rose Stone taunting all the haters to the tune of “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.” It’s the song that Larry Graham famously claims is the first ever use of slap bass. It’s the song that popularized the phrase “different strokes for different folks.” Is it therefore the song that we should blame for Gary Coleman’s career? I find it difficult to be too cynical while singing that chorus, though.

And then, “Sex Machine.” No relation to James Brown’s better known “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” this is the longest track on the album, clocking in at almost 14 minutes of pure funky jam. Sly returns to the vocal harmonica technique from “Don’t Call Me…” on this track for a lengthy improvisation, with Graham’s bass alternately walking up and dropping out. A five minute guitar solo follows, leading up to a crescendo and the return of the harmonica vocals. Another solo on fuzzed out guitar follows, and the track speeds up just a notch. Jerry Martini comes in on saxophone and blows through a key change from G to A, topping out with an ecstatic high A. The rest of the instruments fade out to reveal Eric’s drums; after four measures of the pattern that he had played for the last 12 minutes, he speeds up, soloing in double time, then slowly drops the speed until he is waiting several seconds between beats and someone calls “Time!”

The album closes out with “You Can Make It if You Try,” the only track not featuring Graham on bass; Sly played the instrument on this closing track, which opens with the chorus and alternating vocals on the verses. Then a moment that caught me by surprise—suddenly we get the organ and drum part that the Jungle Brothers famously sampled to create “Because I Got It Like That.” Again, Sly peels away the instruments until it’s just drums and backing vocals, then brings the guitar, organ, and bass back in one at a time for the final coda. It’s an optimistic finale to an improbably upbeat album.

The album was Sly’s first big commercial success, hitting 13 on the Billboard pop chart and 3 on the R&B album chart. “Everyday People” hit number one the week of February 15, 1969. Sly and the band enjoyed the success, maybe a little too much. We’ll hear another one from them in a few weeks, but next week we’ll hear how some of the funk sounds on this album influenced an unlikely musician…with help from someone we’ve heard many times before in this series.

You can listen to this week’s album here: