April 15, 2009

Archives, Gigs

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Solomon Burke at Jazz Festival Wien (Austria) in 2008

Solomon Burke at Jazz Festival Wien (Austria) in 2008

In this performance at B.B. King’s in Times Square, Solomon Burke proved beyond doubt that — at 64, after more than 50 years on stage — he is still one of the great American singers. Even if he held  his stentorian vocal power in reserve, those moments when he chose to unleash it (cf. the final phrases of Ton Waits’ “Always Keep a Diamond in Your Mind”) were awe-inspiring. I was saddened to see Solomon brought on stage in a wheelchair; he must weigh close to 400 pounds (and he’s not tall). But I marveled at how, from a seated position, he was able to hold the crowd’s full attention and to maintain total control over the proceedings.

Unfortunately, Solomon’s still-formidable chops and wily showman’s skills were not always enough to overcome the shortcomings of his band. I realized how accustomed I’d become to seeing him backed by the Uptown Horns—and the band he had at B.B. King’s made the Uptown Horns sound like King Curtis & the Kingpins circa 1967. The playing was “tight” and “professional” but also slick, superficial and not very soulful with the possible exception of “Rudy” on Hammond B-3. The presence of a woman playing the harp (not the Little Walter kind) was as irritating as it was inexplicable.

Another source of frustration was the choice of material. For me, Solomon was at his best whenever he sang an actual Solomon Burke record, be it “Diamond in Your Mind” or “Soul Searchin'” from 2002 or “Down in the Valley” from 1962 I even enjoyed the over-familiar ballad medley (“If You Need Me”/”Tonight’s The Night”/”He’ll Have to Go”/etc.) that has been a staple of his show for at least a quarter-century; after all, these were some of the biggest and best-loved songs of his Sixties career. The “Soul Clan Medley” was nice too, a fitting tribute even though it omitted anything by SC charter member Joe Tex.

But a good part of the set was devoted to the best-known songs of other soul singers: “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Havin’ a Party” by Sam Cooke or “I Got a Woman” and “Georgia” by Ray Charles. At these moments, the show became something of a K-Tel genre exercise: Solomon Burke Sings Soul Songs Every White Person Knows By Heart. But Solomon Burke fans can pull from our own record collections twenty great Solomon Burke songs (several written or co-written by him) that we may never hear Solomon Burke sing on stage: “It’s Been a Change,” “Detroit City,” “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free),” etc. And in Solomon’s hands, with his voice and presence, I’m certain those songs would have proved just as captivating to the B.B. King’s audience as his very broad and rather hollow rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come.” (As for his daughter Candy’s rendition of “I Will Survive”—the less said, the better.)

Despite these criticisms, it was just great to “see Solomon be Solomon” and still in such vital command of his unique singing and performing abilities. Just for “Don’t Give Up On Me” and that brief closing benediction, it was worth the trip to Times Square and the Port Authority Music Terminal B.B. King’s.

Born January 1, 1925 – New York, NY
Died October 27, 2002 – Aventura, FL

Tom Dowd At The Controls

Dowd At The Controls

“Sometimes,” Ahmet Ertegun once said, “the guy who brings the coffee produces the session.” At the Atlantic Records of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, such creative serendipity often balanced precariously on the narrow but sturdy shoulders of Tom Dowd. One of the most gifted and innovative engineer/producers in recording history, he died October 27, 2002 at a nursing home in Aventura, Florida after a prolonged respiratory illness.

A youthful prodigy in physics and electronics, the New York City native graduated Stuyvesant High School at age 16 (my father, Howard Schwartz, graduated from the same school at the same age) and attended City College of New York before being drafted into the Army in 1942. Instead of being shipped overseas, Dowd was able to continue his work and studies in the physics labs of Columbia University as part of the US government-sponsored task force known as the Manhattan Project in the development of the atomic bomb. Dowd was also a trained musician (violin, piano, string bass, sousaphone) who performed with the Columbia band and orchestra. His horror at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is said to have led him to abandon nuclear physics and enter the recording field.

Beginning circa 1948, Tom toiled in various small New York studios recording everything from radio adverts to groundbreaking jazz dates with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music credits him with engineering the first stereo album, by the Wilbur De Paris Dixieland Band, “which required customized equipment, including two needles, to play it.” Dowd joined Atlantic as a full-time employee in 1954 (about a year after Jerry Wexler), when the label’s New York office still sometimes doubled as its recording studio. He became, in Wexler’s words, “the architect of the Atlantic sound,” bringing an unparalleled clarity and concision to the recording of r&b and jazz.

“Tom pushed those pots [volume controls] like a painter sorting colors,” wrote Wexler in his 1993 autobiography Rhythm and The Blues,  co-authored with David Ritz. “He turned microphone placement into an art…When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensitivity.”

In an October 1999 interview for MIX magazine, Dowd noted that “in February of ’58, the first [Atlantic] session on 8-track was Lavern Baker. Within the next 90 days, I went through Bobby Darin, the Coasters, Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles…I would be sitting in the studio doing the Coasters at 2 o’clock in the afternoon with Mike [Stoller] and Jerry [Leiber]. Ahmet would call me up and say, ‘Ten o’clock tonight, we’re going to do Mingus.’ You want culture shock? Go from the Coasters to Charlie Mingus in ten hours!” Dowd designed Atlantic’s first 8-track studio on West 60th Street in 1959 and began recording there the following year.

In 1963, on his first visit to Stax Records in Memphis, Tom performed emergency repairs on the label’s archaic mono equipment and the next day cut Rufus Thomas on “Walkin’ The Dog.” Two years later, in July 1965, Dowd installed the first two-track stereo tape recorder at Stax, then broke in the new setup by recording Otis Redding’s entire Otis Blue album in two marathon sessions within 24 hours.

During his Atlantic years, Tom Dowd engineered landmark sessions by John Coltrane (including “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things”), Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the (Young) Rascals, Dusty Springfield (including Dusty In Memphis), and Cream (including Disraeli Gears, which “was finished in one weekend” according to Eric Clapton). Some less celebrated albums from his immense Atlantic discography include The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby, Suddenly the Blues by Leo Wright, Cher’s 3614 Jackson Highway, Latin Bugalu by Charlie Palmieri, Blues From The Gutter by Champion Jack Dupree, and High On The Hog by Black Oak Arkansas. Dowd was never admitted to the Atlantic partnership and did not share in the rewards from the $17 million sale of the label in 1967. He remained a high-salaried employee until the mid-Seventies, when he left Atlantic to pursue independent production.

Musicians loved him for his great patience, his peerless technical ability, and his total dedication to the task at hand. It was Tom Dowd who introduced Duane Allman to Eric Clapton, and who a short time later produced Derek & the Dominoes’ 1970 double album Layla, And Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dowd/Clapton partnership persisted into the Eighties through such albums as 461 Ocean Boulevard, EC Was Here, and Money and Cigarettes.

“For better or worse, the strength of [Layla] rested almost entirely on Tom’s faith in me,” wrote Eric Clapton in an essay published on the occasion of NARAS (the Grammy organization) presenting Dowd with its 2002 Trustees Award. “I had no finished songs, no real concept or idea of where I was going, nothing but an abstract burning passion for live, spontaneous music.”

“On top of everything else, I refused to make the record under my own name, and was developing a powerful drink and drug problem – not a great position for any record producer to be placed in, but Tom pulled it off. He saw the potential and exercised the most incredible patience in getting through the obstacles that I would constantly place in front of him. It’s little wonder that I eventually came to look on him as a father figure.”

Dowd formed a similar long-lasting bond with another gifted but troubled musician, Gregg Allman, beginning in 1970 when Tom produced the Allman Brothers Band’s second album Idlewild South. Producer and group soldiered on through four more LPs, including the classic 1971 live double At Fillmore East. The band split in 1980, then regrouped nine years later—and Dowd took the controls once again for a pair of live sets and three more studio albums. (Where It All Begins, from 1994, ranks with the ABB’s best post-Duane Allman recordings.) Their final, touching reunion came September 13, 2002 when Tom—now using a wheelchair and and an oxygen tank—attended an Allman Brothers Band performance in West Palm Beach, Florida.

A less affectionate but even more lucrative affiliation was with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the albums Gimme Back My Bullets, One More From the Road, and the original band’s final testament Street Survivors. Dowd also made numerous dully-professional albums with the likes of Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, and Chicago. But in his last professional decade, working with the Allmans, Primal Scream, and Joe Bonamassa, Tom returned to the forceful, blues-based electric music that he had helped bring to prominence twenty years before.

As an album producer, Tom Dowd shared in other people’s Grammy Awards like Allmans’ 1995 win for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Incredibly, Dowd never won his own Grammy Award in the Producer and/or Engineering categories. His only elective Grammy, for Best Album Notes of 1992, was earned for his contribution to the liner booklet for the Aretha Franklin box set Queen Of Soul – The Atlantic Recordings—an award he shared with six other contributors. Ten years later, in a belated attempt to correct this gross oversight, NARAS presented Tom with both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the Trustees Award. He was also the subject of the 2003 documentary film, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, directed by Mark Moormann.

“There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world, who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd,” wrote Eric Clapton. “We know who we are, and we are proud of who we are, but most of all, we are proud of him. I am honored and privileged to be one of them.”

April 14, 2009

Archives, Gigs

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[This essay was commissioned by the editors of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, a book published in 2003 to accompany the release of the same-titled documentary film. It was not included in the final selection and is published here for the first time.]

The first time I met the blues (to quote Buddy Guy), I was an impressionable teenager from an upper-middle class family in suburban New York. Little did I know that this music would remain an ever-present part of my life for the next four decades and profoundly shape my understanding of my country and its culture. “Blame it on the Stones,” in the words of Kris Kristofferson, for the Rolling Stones—more than any other single group or artist—were my guides and interpreters to this music, along with writers and researchers like Samuel Charters, Tony Glover, Bernie Klatzko, Paul Oliver, Robert Palmer, and Pete Welding.

These were four live performances of the blues that I will remember for as long as I live.

(1) HOWLIN’ WOLF [July 1966, Newport Folk Festival, Newport RI]

Chester Arthur Burnett a/k/a Howlin Wolf (1910-1976)

Chester Arthur Burnett a/k/a Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976)

I was one month away from turning fifteen and had just completed a summer school program at Brown University in nearby Providence. In celebration, my parents took me to the Saturday night concert of the four-day festival. The featured acts included contemporary folk stars Phil Ochs and Judy Collins; bluegrass stalwarts Jim & Jesse McReynolds; the Bahamian singer/guitarist Joseph Spence (1910-1984); and singer/harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982), the first black performer to appear on the Grand Old Opry. Yet today I can’t remember anyone but Howlin’ Wolf.

In 1966, I had never heard him on record, and was only dimly aware of the inspiration his music had afforded the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other British invaders. Indeed, I had seen only one previous live performance of black popular music, when latter-day doo-woppers the Jive Five (featuring the great Eugene Pitt) had played the Mamaroneck (NY) High School gym earlier that year. I was, to put it mildly, utterly unprepared for what I was about to see on this night at Newport.

The curtain rose on a five-piece all-black band identically dressed in white dinner jackets, striped tuxedo pants, and carefully processed hair. They vamped on an instrumental until the sax player (almost certainly Eddie Shaw) stepped forward to introduce “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf!”

Another black man appeared from stage right. He was a head taller than his accompanists, and wore striped denim overalls and an engineer’s cap set backwards on his enormous head. He was pushing an industrial-size broom and holding the microphone at the end of the handle. The sheer force of his voice overpowered most of the lyrics, half the band, and a good chunk of the p.a. system.

I didn’t recognize any of the songs he sang, and I can’t remember their titles today. What I do remember is the shock of “The Howlin’ Wolf,” whom I found simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing. It was one of those moments in life when everything you think you know—especially about music and how it works—is suddenly tossed up in the air for some serious re-evaluation. Even at fifteen, I sensed the transgressive nature of Wolf’s performance. He didn’t break through the shared assumptions and political niceties of folk music culture: He crushed them, joyfully and carelessly, under a pair of Size-16 brogans.

I was still trying to process this otherworldly spectacle when Wolf sang his last chorus and lumbered off stage. But the band kept riffing and suddenly he reappeared, riding a tiny motor scooter. He took a couple of quick spins around the stage, and then “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf” was gone for good.

(2) SON HOUSE [November 1969, Beloit College, Beloit, WI]

Son House in the mid-60s

Son House in the mid-'60s

I was an eighteen-year old freshman at a small liberal-arts college set on a hill overlooking a gritty blue-collar factory town on the Wisconsin/Illinois border. I’d begun to connect the blues present to the blues past: Paul Butterfield to Little Walter, Duane Allman to Elmore James. It was my great good fortune to be attending Beloit College when the Wisconsin Delta Blues Festival — the first all-blues weekend festival ever produced in the U.S. — took place in the college Field House in the fall of 1969.

The blues men—there were no female performers—were everywhere on campus that weekend. Mississippi Fred McDowell set up at a table in the student union, his bottleneck slide riffs ringing out as the smoke curled from a cigarette stuck in the headstock of his guitar. J.B. Hutto wore a double-breasted suit the color of an orange traffic cone and a guitar strap of butcher’s twine. My dorm buddies and I sat enraptured at the feet of Mance Lipscomb, Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, and Rev. Robert Wilkins. I thought they would all live forever.

Friday and Saturday nights were devoted to formal concerts, if “formal” can describe a crowd of mostly-stoned college kids sitting cross-legged on a gym floor. On the second night, when Otis Rush cancelled, the show closed with Son House. Rediscovered in 1964, the Delta blues godfather had gone on to play Carnegie Hall and to cut a comeback album for Columbia. But I’d never heard him on record.

I don’t even remember him being introduced. Suddenly Son House was just there, as though he’d cartwheeled or teleported onto the stage, already in full cry. He slashed and flailed at his metal-bodied National guitar. He half-shouted and half-sang his fierce, apocalyptic songs: “Preachin’ The Blues,” “Death Letter,” “John The Revelator.”

Here was something quite apart from Mance Lipscomb’s avuncular warmth or Roosevelt Sykes’ ribald showmanship. Son House was scary. There were moments in this brief, explosive drama — which was something much more, or entirely other, than “music” — when I thought he might be having a heart attack or a grand mal seizure.

Poor health did, in fact, restrict his performing career after 1972. Son House died in bed in 1988 at the age of eighty-six, having outlived his most celebrated protégé, Robert Johnson, by fifty years.

(3) BUDDY GUY & JUNIOR WELLS [September 1976, The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago, IL]

Cover of Atco LP 33-364 (1972)

Cover of Atco LP 33-364 (1972)

I was 25 years old and living in Minneapolis. I owned a bunch of blues albums and even some Chess, King, and Excello label singles. I’d seen a fair number of blues performances, including Muddy Waters singing on crutches following a near-fatal auto accident and a memorable Apollo Theater show with B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Big Mama Thornton. But I’d never set foot in a Chicago blues club patronized by black people.

One late-summer weekend, my friend Philip Dray and I drove to Chicago. Our first stop was the Jazz Record Mart, where we met the proprietor (and Delmark Records founder) Bob Koester. He invited us to join him for a visit to Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge.

The next night, we drove in Koester’s station wagon through the streets of the South Side. To a visitor from the tidy, prosperous Twin Cities, every fourth building appeared partly burned or half-demolished, the rubble awaiting removal on some uncertain future date. On East 43rd Street, Koester took care to park as closely as possible to the Checkerboard’s entrance.

A large black man silently pulled back a heavy chain that hung across the doorway. Inside, a horseshoe-shaped bar under too-bright lighting occupied the right half of the smoky, low-ceilinged room. On the left were some tables, chairs, and a low stage—or perhaps no stage, just some drums and amps set up on the cracked linoleum floor.

A jukebox emitting the loudest bass frequencies in creation played Albert King’s “Cadillac Assembly Line” in heavy rotation. There were less than 50 people in the place, and our foursome joined the half-dozen white listeners already seated. A sharply dressed black man sat drinking at the bar, red-eyed and looking vaguely pissed off. Only when he stepped to the microphone and began to sing did I recognize Junior Wells.

Buddy Guy played that night, with and without Junior, and a fine but little-remembered singer named Andrew “Big Voice” Odom (1936-1991) also sang a few numbers. The casual, matter-of-fact quality of the night—you couldn’t really call it a “show”—threw me for a loop. Already in his third professional decade, Wells was an internationally known performer with a half-dozen albums under his belt. I’d seen him earn standing ovations from white rock audiences—yet the Checkerboard Lounge regulars barely seemed to pay attention, and they didn’t give up much more for Buddy. (The prediction that, fifteen years later, the guitarist would earn a gold album and the first of four Grammy Awards would have struck all of us—black and white alike—as wildly improbable.)

But there were no hard feelings. Everyone on both sides of the bandstand, it seemed, knew the deal: The blues is its own reward. Never before had I heard this music as the soundtrack to daily life in an American urban ghettom and I never heard it quite that way again.

(4) OTIS RUSH [February 2001, The Village Underground,  New York NY]

Rush at Antones (Austin TX)

Rush at Antone's (Austin TX)

In the year that I turned fifty and he turned sixty-seven, Otis Rush made one of his increasingly rare New York appearances, at the basement-level Village Underground on West Third Street in Greenwich Village. He was then one of the greatest living blues exponents, as well as one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated. In 1993, Robert Santelli wrote: “Only among fellow blues musicians and serious fans does he remain a major blues figure, whose emotionally charged solos, achingly plaintive chord phrases, and careful attention to textural detail make him one of Chicago’s greatest guitar stylists.”

Throughout the first set, the self-absorbed crowd chattered away relentlessly—I wondered why they had bothered to pay the healthy cover charge. Rush’s band seemed intent on matching the volume of conversation with their own: They banged away busily while the leader, dignified and self-possessed as ever, delivered pro forma renditions of his Fifties classics (“Double Trouble,” “All Your Love”) and selections from more recent albums. When this unmemorable set ended, I went home. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that, against all odds of time and circumstance, Otis Rush was still capable of much, much more. So I put my coat back on and retraced the dozen blocks to the club.

The club was now little more than half full, and even the band had calmed down. Otis played an opening instrumental and one or two other numbers. Then he counted off a slow tempo and hit the soaring guitar intro to “Walking the Back Streets and Crying,” from his 1998 album Any Place I’m Going.

On a 1972 Stax single, Little Milton sang this song in the first person as a straightforward tale of lost love. Rush’s recording changes the key from major to minor, further slows the tempo, rewrites the bass and horn lines, and completely transforms the lyrics. (Both versions are credited to one Sandy Jones.) Now Otis Rush, in a subdued, almost conversational tone, began to relate a woman’s story of love found, rejected, and lost forever:

You know the other day a woman stopped me / She said, “Daddy, let me talk to you
“Listen baby, I ain’t beggin’ / I’m just lonesome and I’m blue
“Once I had a good man / but I didn’t know how to act
“By the time I learned my lesson / my good man wouldn’t take me back…”

And then the piteous refrain:

She said, “That was too much for me /That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad / to see the man I misused say goodbye…”

Otis’ voice was rich with sorrow, and his shuddering guitar lines echoed his words. As he moved into the second verse—in which the woman enlists a friend to plea for forgiveness on her behalf—I realized that the room had fallen nearly silent.

“You know I sent a friend to talk for me / She said, ‘I did the best I could’
“‘I lied like a dog for you / I just couldn’t do you no good.’
“That’s when I hit the back streets, people,  just as drunk as I could be
“The man I had misused,  he passed by, and didn’t look back at me…”

Rush dug into the first guitar solo, and his elongated, jazz-tinged phrases seemed to well up from some subterranean realm far below this basement cabaret. He stretched and sustained individual notes to their breaking point: They hung in the air just a split-second longer than you thought the laws of sound would allow, the way a Michael Jordan drive to the hoop once seemed to defy the laws of gravity.

In the third and final verse, the departed lover speaks for himself—and his pain is no less than that of the woman he’s left behind:

“He said, ‘You had the nerve to call me / Said you were lonesome as you can be
‘Last time we had an argument, you called the po-lice on me
‘They ran me out my house, people, while you stood there and grinned
‘Now the po-lice can’t help you, little girl, ‘cos they can’t bring me in’
She said, “That was too much for me / That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad,  to see the man I misused say goodbye…”

In his last solo, through one twelve-bar chorus after another, Otis Rush poured it on until the final flourish that signaled the song’s end. In his hands that night, “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” was a tale told with the emotional force of Shakespeare, of Greek tragedy.

Though the set wasn’t over, I wanted only to hold that transcendent moment in my heart. I climbed the basement stairs again and stepped out onto Wst Third Street, where the winter wind stung the tears that streaked my face.

April 10, 2009

Archives, Gigs

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My hat–or better yet, my paisley babushka–is off to Little Steven Van Zandt a/k/a Miami Steve of the E Street Band a/k/a Silvio of “The Sopranos.” Through sheer force of will, and with an iron grip on the organizational wheel, he pulled off the seemingly impossible: the first International Underground Garage Festival, all 12 hours and all 45 acts of it, held Saturday  under threatening skies on Randall’s Island in the middle of New York’s East River. The New York Times reported the turnout at 16,000 fans, roughly half of whom wore Johnny Thunders t-shirts.

Arriving around 4:00 PM to the strains of the Pete Best Band, I was checking in backstage with Mark Satlof of the fest’s PR firm Shore Fire Media when I spotted guest MC Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. I bum-rushed the former “77 Sunset Strip” star for his signature on my treasured copy of his 1993 autobiography Kooky No More, which Byrnes proudly showed off to fellow 15-minutes-of-famer Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore.

I took up a position on the flat, muddy field in the vicinity of the Robert Christgau family and settled in for the long haul. Unfortunately, I’d already missed the first 33 sets–each only five to fifteen minutes long–by such geezer garage greats as the Creation, Chocolate Watch Band, Electric Prunes,and Davie Allen & the Arrows; as well as those of their eager Nineties descendents the Shazam (Louisville, KY), Caesars (Sweden), Swingin’ Neckbreakers (Trenton, NJ), Boss Martians (Seattle, WA), Stems (Australia), Paybacks (Detroit, MI), and Mooney Suzuki (NYC, NY). Meanwhile, the original punk-era garage revival–sparked circa 1975-76 by Greg Shaw’s Bomp label and Lenny Kaye’s classic Nuggets anthology–was represented by the Fleshtones, Lyres, Fuzztones, and Chesterfield Kings, all of whom I missed as well. But that still left twelve acts and a helluva good-rockin’ time for a mere $20 advance ticket (yes, you read that figure right). Said price included big-screen video projection and a technicolor-costumed line of shapely female go-go dancers (including, briefly, Drew Barrymore) on a raised platform at the rear of the stage.

Nancy Sinatra fronted a large, horn-laden band with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums and veteran L.A. sessioneer Don Randi on keyboards. Her Vegas-flavored set kicked off with “Tony Rome,” the theme from one of daddy Frank’s less-celebrated motion pictures; closed with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” (natch), and sandwiched in newly-recorded songs composed by Morrissey and Thurston Moore. The Romantics were better when I saw them at Hurrah in 1978, but Wally Palmar & Co. showed spirit and solid musicianship in a 20-minute set that closed, inevitably, with “What I Like About You.”

The Dictators, restored to full strength with the return of guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, wowed the hometown crowd with a stadium-strength onslaught highlighted by the day’s true anthem, “Who Will Save Rock & Roll?” Both singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things may be staring down 70, but I quite enjoyed their brand of psych-tinged r&b, especially the closing rave-up “L.S.D.”

Big Star with Alex Chilton played and sang “September Gurls” and “In The Street” in a very competent but somewhat mechanical fashion. Seventy-five year-old Bo Diddley was suffering a cold and played sitting down, but he took more chances than most by mixing reggae and rap (!) in with his sacrosanct standards of the mid-Fifties. The Raveonettes played two songs in ten minutes and were gone, due to the increasingly doubtful weather. (The persistent drizzle didn’t turn to rain until the festival closed at around 9:30 PM, nearly an hour ahead of schedule.)

Readers may decide for themselves if just two original members (not including the drummer or the lead guitarist) should allow a present-day band to be called the New York Dolls. But with masterful, glammed-up front man David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain leading the charge, and ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa subbing for the late Arthur “Killer” Kane (who died of leukemia on 7/13/04, just weeks prior to this show), the Dolls turned in a truly memorable performance. They rampaged through “Personality Crisis,” “Private World,” and Bo Diddley’s “Pills” before turning reflective on a medley of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and “Lonely Planet Boy.” It made for a touching tribute to the band’s four (!) deceased members: Kane, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and original drummer Billy Murcia.

The Strokes aroused the antipathy of certain audience members who just couldn’t accept their appearance between/equation with the Dolls and the Stooges. At one point between tunes, singer Julian Casablancas told us that “I’m a shallow guy” — an admission I find embodied in his bland lyrics and lackadaisical delivery. But the playing was tight and forceful throughout–and over the past 35 years, I’ve had to endure much worse while waiting for the act I came to see. (Anybody remember It’s A Beautiful Day, Iron Butterfly, or Aorta?)

The Stooges blew us all away. Love or hate him, you simply can’t take your eyes off Iggy Pop. Behind him, Ron Asheton (guitar), his brother Scott a/k/a “Rock Action” (drums), and ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (bass) made a huge, hellacious noise on songs from The Stooges (1969) and Funhouse (1970). In the course of their hour-long closing set, Iggy climbed atop the amps; attacked one of the large mobile cameras filming the show; and successfully demanded of the security staff that a couple dozen enthusiastic audience members be allowed on stage.

If the festival had a consistent weak spot, it was due to the breakdown (after about the first hour) of the much-touted revolving stage–which, had it functioned properly, would have allowed for a seamless change-over. Instead, it became necessary to kill some time between sets, a task left to not only Steve Van Zandt but also such dubious VIPs as Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico, who announced that “I don’t really like this kind of music”; and Kim Fowley, spreading his singular brand of bad vibes at major rock festivals since 1969.

Hey, Steve: Let’s do it again next year, OK?

jamesblackI never knew him. I never saw him play. Only within the past few years did I become aware of his existence. But James Black has cast a spell on me.

I am haunted by the unexpected shifts in his compositions and arrangements, the restless creativity of his unquiet spirit, the unfinished business of hit-and-run sessions long unissued. As I listen to these songs, my mind combs through the fragments of his story, through the rare interviews and stray anecdotes, as I try to piece together an image of the man and a picture of his volatile and truncated life.

James Black: Who, according to legend, once set up his kit on a New Orleans sidewalk and played “duets” with a utility worker’s jackhammer. Who walked off the bandstand and into the New Orleans night when pianist Harry Connick Jr. couldn’t cut it on Black’s own “Magnolia Triangle,” the very first tune of the set.

(“The bass player and I just couldn’t keep up with him,” Harry told his audience before playing the song during a 1999 concert in Richmond, Virginia.)

James Black: Who wrote four out of seven tunes for Ellis Marsalis’ classic 1963 album Monkey Puzzle—intricate, harmonically rich songs like “Whistle Stop,” “Dee Wee,” “Monkey Puzzle,” and “Magnolia Triangle.” The band is Black, Marsalis (piano), Nat Perrilliat (tenor), and Marshall Smith (bass). The CD reissue (AFO, 1991) closes with a ten-minute live version of “Night in Tunisia” that burns as hot as any mainstream jazz performance I’ve ever heard on record. Black drives the group so hard that the stage seems in danger of collapse; on the explosive solo that ends the track, he sounds like at least two drummers.

“James…is probably the most aggressive and dynamic personality of the group. His playing reflects his personality very accurately. He is constantly bored with the present because the future is unexplored, and in his mind is in the unexplored future…” – Harold Battiste (circa 1963)

James Black was born February 1, 1940. His musically inclined family lived at 1215 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, later moving to 1218 Ursulines Avenue. He received his first musical training as a student in Joseph A. Craig Elementary School.

“[The school band director] ask me what I wanted to play and I told him I wanted to play the drums. And this motherfucker told me he had 50,000 drummers already, so what else did I want? He ask me did I want to play the flute, and I told him no ‘cause the flute was for bitches. And I ain’t no bitch…”

(Above and all other James Black quotes are excerpted from the liner notes for the out-of-print box set New Orleans Heritage/Jazz: 1956-66.)

Instead, Black took up the trumpet and later studied piano. Said to have excelled on both instruments, he never recorded on either one. He began playing drums in junior high school.

“I was about two or three years behind [John] Boudreaux and Smokey [Johnson] and them cats…I had to play the trumpet to be in the school band, so I went on and played the shit they wanted me to play. But shit, I knew I was a drummer so I went on and played the drums anyhow.”

Upon graduation from Joseph S. Clark HS, James received a band scholarship (on trumpet) to Southern University in Baton Rouge where he majored in composition and music education. He also played r&b in a band with Nat Perilliat and guitarist Roy Montrell and was influenced by the playing of the great Ed Blackwell, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman.

“That was some interesting shit, the way [Blackwell] was playing…I asked him to let me sit in, ‘cos I’m a cheeky, bold black motherfucker!”

Just six months before graduation, James dropped out to take a gig with Ellis Marsalis and Marshall Smith at the New Orleans Playboy Club. (He later expressed regret over the loss of his diploma: “I’d rather have it and don’t need it than to need it and don’t have it.”) Six months later, the group moved to Ellis’ own club, The Music Haven—at that time, the only modern jazz venue in New Orleans.

In 1962, Black, Marsalis, and Nat Perilliat joined brothers Nat and Cannonball Adderley on the New Orleans recording sessions for Nat Adderley’s Jazzland LP In The Bag. James contributed his original compositions “Sister Wilson” and “New Arrival” to the repertoire, but poor sound quality renders his drumming nearly inaudible for much of the date.

On the last two tracks of the Fantasy CD reissue, “The Popeye” and “The Gospel Truth,” Black is suddenly and startlingly present. He plays pure second-line rhythms with joyful abandon, never consecutively repeating a single phrase or accent for the duration of the performances. His percussion is easily the most striking element of these pleasant r&b instrumentals, which were paired on a Riverside single and issued under the pseudonym of Spider Johnson & His Popeye Band. But Black’s playing is so free, so far beyond the rhythmic requirements of the dance floor, that—as one contemporary listener put it—“he effectively destroyed any chance of the record ever becoming a hit.”

In 1964, under the aegis of singer/pianist Joe Jones (“You Talk Too Much”), Black moved to New York as part of a group of Crescent City journeymen that also included guitarist/vocalist Alvin “Shine” Robinson. After falling out with Jones, the drummer played a few nights at Birdland with Horace Silver before successfully auditioning for Lionel Hampton.

“I worked for this motherfucker for a year and a half. I had a run-in with Gladys, his old lady [and also Hampton’s business manager] …I was on my two weeks’ notice because I wouldn’t play 4/4 on the bass drums, when I got a call from Yusef [Lateef]. So when my two weeks was up, I met Yusef in Washington, D.C. at the Bohemian Caverns. I stayed with him for a couple of years.”

Black recorded several excellent albums with Lateef for Impulse, although only the first volume of Live At Pep’s (originally released in June 1964) is in print at this writing. Lateef and trumpeter Richard Williams are in excellent form on these dates, as Black’s impeccable support allows both men to give their best. James Black also performs on Yusef Lateef’s Psychicemotus (Impulse, 1965), a studio date reissued by Verve in 2005.

“Yusef was another one of them cats who wanted you to be good. You know, like he was always trying to save you…Shit, I don’t need to be saved—I’m already saved.”

In 1967, James Black came home to New Orleans to live for the rest of his life. In the preface to a 1974 CODA interview, writer Val Wilmer noted that since his return, James had played “with saxophonist James Rivers, and with Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for a while although he never recorded with either performer. He did, however, record with Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and the Meters, and for some time made all of Allen Toussaint’s sessions.”

An aura of mystery surrounds the music of (I NEED) ALTITUDE. The specific recording dates and exact personnel are unknown. But we know that in 1969, Black drummed on (one might say detonated) a session for Al Scramuzza’s Scram Records that brought forth one of the all-time New Orleans funk classics, Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling (Parts 1 & 2).” Towards the end of the allotted hours, the label owner was called away from the session and the musicians hastily recorded two of Black’s own songs, “Mist” and “Tune #6”—both included here. When interviewed decades later, Al Scramuzza stated that the ensemble included Eddie Bo (piano), Walter Payton (bass), Walter “Wolfman” Washington (guitar), and saxophonists Fred Kemp and “Shemp.”

(I NEED) ALTITUDE culls music from two other James Black sessions. Around 1976, four tracks from an aborted album project for the Sound of New Orleans label featured bassist Jim Singleton, pianist David Torkanowsky, and Earl Turbinton on saxophone. Approximately six years later, Allen Toussaint gave Black two days of “spec” recording time at the former’s Sea-Saint Studios. (As the Crescent City’s premier producer/arranger, Toussaint has said that he frequently called on James to play parts that other drummers couldn’t handle.)

At Sea-Saint, Black shared lead vocals with his long-time companion and stage singer “Sister” Mary Bonette. Today, she recalls the supporting presence of Torkanowsky, Singleton, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, and trumpeter Clyde Kerr—all of who gigged with “The James Black Ensemble featuring Sister Mary” at various times in the Seventies and Eighties.

“James wanted musicians that could read. He had everything written out for those sessions.” — Mary Bonette.

James Black died of an overdose in 1988, without ever seeing a record released under his own name. His last recording session, with singer Germaine Bazzle, was released the following year on The New New Orleans Music: Vocal Jazz (Rounder).

On February 1, 2002, a quartet led by pianist Eric Reed performed James Black’s compositions as part of a “Jazz Composer Portraits” series at Columbia University. “This concert,” wrote Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, “should be a fascinating attempt to highlight a musician whom we should have known better.”

“Everybody knew James was great. He just never got a break.” – Mary Bonette.

Readers of these notes will draw their own conclusions about the music herein. Suffice to say that “(I Need) Altitude” and “Storm In The Gulf,” to cite two examples, are unlike any funk, jazz, or jazz-funk you’ve ever heard before—from New Orleans or anywhere else. Yet this music could have come only from New Orleans…and only from the mind and soul of James Black.

April 10, 2009

Archives, Liner Notes


From the liner notes to CHARLIE CHRISTIAN – GENIUS OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR (Sony Legacy box set, 2002)

Guitar Hero: Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian (1916-1942)

The year was 1938. I was living in New York and playing on the NBC radio network, five nights a week. It was the coast-to-coast broadcast of “The Chesterfield Hour” with Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians, featuring the Les Paul Trio. So three times a week, I’d get to play the guitar on the show and I became enormously well known in radio in those days.

One day, my bass player Ernie Newton says to me: “We’ve been working hard, knocking our brains out. Let’s go to Chicago. Let’s go out to Wisconsin, see your mom, take a couple weeks off.”

So we went up there to Waukesha. And to my surprise, my mother was not too enthused that I’m featured on the biggest radio program in the United States. I thought she’d be beaming with pride! But she says, “You know, Lester, that show is too classy.” She was always a lover of country and bluegrass. That’s why I started out in my career as Rhubarb Red, influenced by my mother’s love of that type of music.

“You stick around,” she says. “I’ll make you some chili, and I’ll dial this radio station. I want you to hear this music.”

So she tunes in KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I hear Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. “They got drums and everything in there,” my mother says to me. “Lester, that’s where you should go!”

Here I am in New York, on network radio with Fred Waring and jamming with the greatest players in the world: Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins. But all my mother can say is: “Lester, think about it.”

Then Ernie Newton says to me: “We’re not doing anything. Why the hell don’t we go out to Oklahoma and see what it’s all about?” So we drove from Waukesha to Tulsa. And when we get there, we hunt up these guys, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys.

Les Paul On Stage

Les Paul On Stage

The place they were playing was like an airplane hanger, a big cavernous ballroom. A real cowboy saloon, but huge. And pretty soon we’re jamming with them, having a helluva good time, when I notice this young black fellow standing down below and looking up at me.

We take a break, and this fellow says to me: “Mr. Paul, could I get your autograph?” So I give him my autograph. “I play the guitar,” he tells me.

I say, “Well, are ya any good?” He says, “Yes, sir.”

I ask him his name. “Charlie,” he says. “Charlie Christian.”

I handed him the guitar and he played a little. I says, “Jesus, you are good. You want to come up and sit in with us?”

So he got up and played my guitar with the Texas Playboys. I don’t know whether he even had an instrument at that time.

And that was the first night that I met Charlie Christian.

Back in New York, not too long after that, I get a call from Charlie. He’s gotten an offer to come to New York–that was the offer from Benny Goodman–but he doesn’t have a guitar.

I’m about to order a new guitar from Gibson. Would he like one like mine? “I’ll order it for you,” I say, “and we’ll have ‘em both alike”

The next thing I know, Charlie’s in New York. We met at the New York Band & Instrument Company, owned by Eddie Bell, on Sixth Avenue around 46th Street. We’ve got the guitars that Gibson sent to Eddie Bell. I’d had the amplifier casings made of one-inch-thick maple so it wouldn’t vibrate on stage. This son-of-a-bitch had like sixteen tubes in it.

Now Charlie’s got his guitar and I’ve got mine, and we’re excited as hell over these two beautiful blond Gibson guitars. I had to go to work at 53rd and Broadway, in the same building where the David Letterman Theater is now. So we left Eddie Bell’s, carrying our guitars and amps, and walked to 53rd and Broadway. I’m gonna rehearse with Fred Waring, and Charlie’s gonna take the subway to Harlem.

We’re standing there at the subway entrance, and we kinda look at each other. “Charlie,” I say, “my balls are about ready to fall off.”

“Les,” he says, “this thing is so heavy, I can’t even lift it anymore!”

That inch-thick maple casing on the amp was killing both of us. The guitar itself, the top, was another half-inch of solid maple. We turned around and dragged it all back to Eddie Bell. Told him, send it all back to Gibson. And I went back to the old guitar, the same one that Charlie played that night in Tulsa.

Benny Goodman (1909-1986)

Benny Goodman (1909-1986)

Charlie hits with Benny Goodman. He’s all excited, and I’m very excited about how good he’s doing. We’d go up to Minton’s and jam together, swap licks, the whole nine yards. He was living uptown and I was in Queens, at 81st and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

Charlie always was impressed with the fact that I was a technical player, a white technical player. But he was a stomper. “You only play one goddamn note,” I’d tell him, “and you kill me!”

What I’m doing was so much harder than what he’s doing–that’s what I thought back then. But over time, through being with Charlie, I realized how tough it is to come down on that one note in the right place, and how much more of a drive he had. He had that ability, like Lionel Hampton, to take a note, to take one “A,” and just pound it into your head until it was the greatest note you’d ever heard.

He didn’t play beyond himself. He didn’t think, “What the hell, no one’s listening–why don’t I try this?” Charlie wasn’t one to go out over his head. The beat came first. He locked himself into that driving sound.

In 1941, I stuck my hand in the transmitter of an illegal radio station I had made in my basement in Jackson Heights. I was nearly electrocuted. That accident ended my career for a year.

While I’m in the hospital, they tell me that Charlie’s in a hospital on Staten Island. I call him up, and we talk about the good times we had playing together, all the fun we had, how wonderful it was.

“Les,” he says, “I’ve got tuberculosis.”

I knew what that meant. Because in those days, if you had TB, there was really nothing they could do for you.

That phone call was the last I heard from Charlie Christian. I don’t know if he came out of that hospital, don’t know if he survived two or three or five months. I guess that he’d only played professionally for about five years.

I heard Charlie’s influence spread during his lifetime. You could hear him in Barney Kessel, in Herb Ellis, in all the guys who tried to get that big round sound. It ran through Wes Montgomery, and it runs through George Benson today. I was talking with George about Charlie not even six months ago.

With all the technique they have out there, with all these guitar players–-the one that wins is still the fellow that plays that one note I heard that night in Tulsa.

He never lived to fulfill what he could have done, should have done. But I loved that man.

Charlie Christian was my friend.

blindboys_For Clarence Fountain — the 70-something years–young leader of The Blind Boys of Alabama — his earliest memories of Christmas are among the most vivid.

“I must’ve been about three or four years old, living with my family in Tyler, Alabama, in Dallas County. We were out in the country and didn’t get to town but once in a while.

“Christmas was the one day that us kids all got some candy and some apples and oranges. Didn’t have anything else–we were too poor to buy anything else. But I knew it was Christmas, because that was the only time I got those things all at the same time–-the candy and the apples and the oranges.”

Later, when Fountain entered the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind at Talladega, “they had a big male chorus and we always learned Christmas songs like ‘Silent Night.’ You know, the Blind Boys have always wanted to cut a Christmas album. We just never got it together before.”

For Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama, the wait is over. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the first holiday theme album in the group’s 60-year history, as well as their third release for Real World Records. This 12-song collection is a work of both comforting familiarity and startling innovation, with genre-crossing guest vocal appearances by Solomon Burke, George Clinton, Michael Franti, Chrissie Hynde, Shelby Lynne, Les McCann, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, and Tom Waits. There are special instrumental guest performances by Richard Thompson (electric guitar) and Robert Randolph (pedal steel guitar) in addition to a superb studio band, led by organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame) with jump-blues guitar ace Duke Robillard and the peerless rhythm section of Danny Thompson (double bass) and Michael Jerome (drums).

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is produced by John Chelew, producer of the Blind Boys’ two previous Grammy Award-winning albums: Spirit of the Century (2001) and Higher Ground (2002). A percentage of the royalties from the new disc (to be released September 16, 2003) will be donated to the American Diabetes Association. During the ADA’s national convention in June 2003, the Blind Boys of Alabama (three of whose members are diabetic) initiated a major fund-raising campaign with a donation of $5,000 to the organization.


Here are some selected tracks from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, including comments by the guest performers:

“I Pray On Christmas” with Solomon Burke

Soul music legend Solomon Burke reaches into his potent upper range on this Harry Connick, Jr. composition, and his performance is a vivid reminder of his own deep roots in urban gospel.

“I remember him from when he was a boy preacher in the Fifties,” recalls Clarence Fountain. “He had a church in Philadelphia–and all the time he was singing rock and roll, he was pastoring the church!”

Solomon Burke, for his part, has “always idolized the Blind Boys. They have been around for more than 60 years and still, here they are: the hottest, workin’, movin’, groovin’, jumpin’, singin’, shoutin’ gospel quartet in America–I’d say in the world!”

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” with Tom Waits

The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter meets the gospel tradition on a timeless spiritual. The bluesy, minor-key arrangement recalls the Blind Boys’ earlier transformation of “Amazing Grace.”

John Chelew (producer): “I got a bunch of versions of ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’, but they were all in a major key and all a little soft. So I sat at the nine-foot Steinway at Capitol and just put the song to minor chords. So we got this tougher, more mournful chord structure that inspired the harmonies you hear–and they’re really weird harmonies, almost like doo-wop.”

“In The Bleak Midwinter” with Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson

Although largely unfamiliar to US audiences, this song is a hallowed British Christmas standard. The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde worked for two days to capture the perfect vocal take. The result ranks with her finest ballad performances, complemented by Richard Thompson’s ringing electric guitar solo.

“Joy To the World” with Aaron Neville

On a superb a cappella version of this Yuletide hymn, recorded live in a New Orleans studio, Aaron Neville sings delicate filigrees of countermelody in and around the Blind Boys’ chorale.

“I was listening to the Blind Boys back in the Fifties,” says Aaron. “My brothers and I used to walk down the street harmonizing, trying to sound like the Blind Boys. Their singing still sends chills down my spine. They’ve got that old soul!”

“Born In Bethlehem” with Mavis Staples

This (literally) breathtaking circular chant-song finds Mavis Staples in typically exuberant form, and no wonder: “That song was based on the version that the Staples Singers recorded in 1959 for our Christmas album The 25th Day of December” she explains. “Pops [father Roebuck “Pops” Staples] came up with all these old songs, and ‘Born in Bethlehem’ was my favorite of them all.”

“I’ve known the Blind Boys since I was a shorty. They would often perform at the DuSable High School auditorium in Chicago. It would be a big package show that might include the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May, the Swanee Quintet or the Dixie Hummingbirds. Clarence Fountain would bend his knees and do a little strut we called the Camel Walk, and the audience would just go wild!”

“Away In A Manger” with George Clinton and Robert Randolph

A tender seasonal hymn is recast as a mischievously subversive 12-bar blues, with George Scott’s lead vocal intertwined with the muttering, chuckling, yowling voice of Parliament/Funkadelic founder George Clinton. Meanwhile, Robert Randolph applies some wicked wah-wah to his pedal steel guitar solo.

Randolph says he sometimes wonders: “Was there something in the food that made people able to sing like George Scott, back in the day? Because that is what’s so cool about being affiliated with the Blind Boys: Their music gives you a feeling you just can’t get from anyone else.”

“White Christmas” with Les McCann

Les McCann’s arrangement completely transforms this familiar chestnut, from his scat-sung intro to his myriad chord substitutions on piano.

John Chelew: “Les’ manager told us that the stroke he suffered in 1995 had effected some of his playing but not all of it. But when he sat at the piano and started playing, I said: ‘Man, nothing’s missing here!’

“Les created an arrangement that virtually rewrote the song. It’s so unusual, such a departure from any previous version, that it took the Blind Boys two days to learn how to sing it.”


The Blind Boys of Alabama have spread the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music for over 60 years, ever since the first version of the group formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Today, founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott are joined by more recent arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie, Bobby Butler, and Tracy Pierce on a mission to expand the audience for traditional soul-gospel singing while incorporating contemporary songs and innovative arrangements into their hallowed style.

The group toiled for more than 40 years on the traditional gospel circuit. But in 1983, their career reached a turning point with their crucial role in The Gospel At Colonnus, the smash hit musical drama created by Bob Telson and Lee Breuer. This Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway success, coupled with their appearance on two original soundtrack albums (in 1984 and 1988), brought the Blind Boys’ timeless sound to an enthusiastic new audience.

The 1992 album Deep River — produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a transcendent version of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You” — earned the Blind Boys their first Grammy Award nomination. It was, as their executive producer and long-time booking agent Chris Goldsmith notes, “the first time the Blind Boys ventured into ‘gospelizing’ relevant contemporary songs that weren’t traditional soul-gospel songs.” In 1995, the Blind Boys released the roof-raising live album I Brought Him With Me, followed (in 1997) by Holding On, an experiment in funked-up contemporary gospel.

The group did not record again until 2001, when Chris Goldsmith (who “just couldn’t take it anymore”) decided to self-finance the Blind Boys album he’d been hearing in his head for years. “I saw a show with [blues singer/guitarist] John Hammond and the Blind Boys performing together that was an epiphany for me. Around the same time, John Chelew came by to talk about his ideas for a Blind Boys album.”

The result was the Blind Boys’ Real World label debut, Spirit of the Century — a set of hot-wired traditional gospel and carefully chosen contemporary songs that became the group’s best-selling album to date and won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. One track, a version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series “The Wire.” (Throughout their 2003 touring season, the Allman Brothers Band played this cut over their PA system each night just before hitting the stage.)

Higher Ground — a spiritual excavation into the soul music tradition — earned the group its second consecutive Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Backed by Robert Randolph and his Family Band (as well as Ben Harper, on several tracks), the Blind Boys offered masterful interpretations of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” the Stevie Wonder-penned title tune, and even a touch of Funkadelic (“Me and My Folks”). During the 34th annual Dove Awards sponsored by the Gospel Music Association, the Blind Boys of Alabama were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and presented with the Dove Award for Higher Ground as the Best Traditional Gospel Album.

During the 2003 holiday season, the Blind Boys will undertake a special series of Christmas concerts featuring songs from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN with guest appearances by Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, John Medeski, and others to be announced.

For Clarence Fountain, there’s one thing that could surpass the pleasure of those oranges and apples and candy of his childhood. “It took us a long time to get around to making a Christmas CD, but GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the best Christmas album you’ll hear this year. If this CD sells, it will be the best Christmas present I ever had. So everyone should buy a copy before December 25th!”