Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Paul Sanders Jr. and Henry (Hank) Neuberger are two old and dear friends of mine who, like me, grew up in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County. I attended Mamaroneck High School and didn’t meet Paul or Hank until our college years, but the two were close friends in the Class of 1969 at White Plains High School (WPHS) in White Plains NY. This is the story of how, in early 1969, Paul and Hank came to promote a memorable and groundbreaking show by Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy at WPHS — or “Buddy Guy High,” as the two teenage impresarios hyped it to anyone and everyone in the weeks leading up to the gig.

George “Buddy” Guy was born 7/30/1936 in Lettsworth, LA and moved to Chicago in 1957; the following year, he released his first two singles on the Cobra label (Otis Rush and Magic Sam also recorded memorably for Cobra). Beginning in 1960, Buddy recorded a string of fine singles for Chess Records, with “Stone Crazy” becoming his only Billboard R&B chart hit (#12 in ’62). Buddy’s breakthrough to the white audience began in 1968 with his Vanguard debut LP, A Man and The Blues, produced by Sam Charters and abetted by Otis Spann‘s peerless piano playing. Unless Chess, Vanguard was well-entrenched in the progressive folk/rock market (with Joan Baez, Country Joe & the Fish, et al),  and the success of A Man and The Blues led to Buddy appearing in East Coast clubs and on rock ballroom bills such as the Jefferson Airplane show I saw at Fillmore East in November 1968.

In 1969, WPHS was a three-year school with an enrollment of over 2000 students. By tradition, its annual Senior Prom was free to all students, with all costs covered by various fund-raising events created by members of the class throughout their graduation year.

Paul Sanders: “In 1966, the WPHS senior class raised so much money that they were able to book Smokey Robinson & the Miracles for the prom. In ’67, the class said ‘okay, we’re getting the Temptations‘ — which they did — and the class of ’68 followed with the Four Tops…The Buddy Guy show was part of the fund-raising effort for our prom.”

Hank Neuberger: “This was Paul and Hank educating our peers about the blues.”

Paul: “We had A Man and The Blues but that was it. We hadn’t gotten hold of any of the Chess singles yet…We became aware of the blues and of artists like Buddy Guy–”

Hank: “–the same way Mick and Keith did!”

Paul: “I’d already seen B.B. King with Big Brother & the Holding Company in ’68, and Albert King at the Village Gate on a bill with King Curtis & the Kingpins.”AManAndTheBlues

Hank: “We were hipper than the room, so to speak. We were ‘the music guys,’ we were setting the tone. The fact that we were gonna promote a Buddy Guy show meant that it was a happening thing and that the kids should come — and to our amazement, they actually did! For the whole month leading up to the show, WPHS was ‘Buddy Guy High.'”

Hank and Paul booked the show through Buddy’s manager Dick Waterman, whose Avalon Productions also represented Skip James, Son House,  and Junior Wells (and shortly Bonnie Raitt). Buddy’s fee was probably about $2500; his band likely included bassist Jack Myers, saxophonist A.C. Reed, and his brother Philip Guy on rhythm guitar. The show also included an opening act, the Cream-inspired Fluid (more like a Cream cover band, really), most of whom were classmates of mine at Mamaroneck HS. (Two members of this band, bassist/guitarist Steve Love and drummer Bryan Madey, later found some measure of fame if not fortune in the group Stories, whose “Brother Louie” became an out-of-nowhere Number One hit in 1973.)

Hank: “The WPHS auditorium was jammed to capacity, which was about 1200. Fluid played their Cream numbers for 30-40 minutes through their Marshall stacks. No one in the audience other than Paul and I had any idea who Buddy Guy was or what his music would sound like.”

Paul: “These were 15-16-17 year-old white suburban kids and this was their first encounter with the blues. To call his appearance ‘a shock to the system’ would be an understatement.

“The curtain goes up, Buddy comes out, he plugs in, opens up — maybe it was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ [from A Man and The Blues] — and immediately goes into his second song. And after about two minutes, this big puff of white smoke started to rise from his amp. I think it was a Fender Super Reverb–in any case, it started making all kinds of noises and then just quit cold.”

Hank: “Buddy’s hittin’ it hard, kids are standing on their chairs — and when that amp blew, all the excitement just drained right out of the room. It went from screaming excitement to nothing.”

Of course, neither the promoters nor Buddy had a spare amp on hand. (“Maybe he had some extra guitar strings,” Hank recalls. “He definitely didn’t have another amp.”) But Fluid guitarist Jon Lehr stepped into the breach and graciously offered the loan of his Marshall amp for the remainder of the set.

Paul: “It may have been the first time Buddy Guy had ever plugged into a Marshall — and he made good use of it, I can assure you! Combined with his use of a 300-foot guitar cord, he had those kids in the palm of his hand.”

Hank: “The auditorium had three sections of seats. He ran up one aisle, out the right rear door, back in the left rear door, down the other aisle, and back up onto the stage — and he never stopped playing.”

Buddy Guy Today

Buddy Guy Today

Paul and Hank’s Buddy Guy show was a resounding success. It raised enough money for the WPHS senior prom committee to book not one but two national acts: The Tymes, a smooth-voiced Black vocal group who had three Top 20 Pop hits in ’63-’64 including the #1 “So Much In Love”; and the Elektra Records quasi-supergroup Rhinoceros, of “Apricot Brandy” fame. [Paul Sanders: “These acts were chosen by a vote of the whole class from a list of available acts, including Jethro Tull.”]

Two decades later, Hank Neuberger was chief engineer and studio manager at Chicago Recording Company when Buddy Guy arrived at CRC to cut some tracks. “He came in, I introduced myself, and I said: ‘Buddy, I just wanted to tell you that I promoted a show with you way back when — and I’ll never forget it, because your amp blew up five minutes into the show.’

“He looked at me and said: ‘White Plains High School?’

“And I said, ‘Well, yeah — but why would you remember that gig, more than 20 years later?’

“And Buddy said: ‘Because when your amp blows up on the second song, you’ll remember the show.”

BUDDY GUY – “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB” [Live, 1969]

With Jack Bruce (bass), Buddy Miles (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone)

Portrait of Albert C. Barnes by Giorgia de Chirico

Dr. Albert C. Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico (1926)

On Thursday 11/26/09, Leslie and I along with my parents, Howard & Phyllis Schwartz, drove down to Philadelphia for the Thanksgiving weekend. We’d made a reservation for 12 noon Saturday to tour The Barnes Foundation in the Main Line suburb of Merion, PA. My folks had visited this unique museum many years before but Leslie and I were seeing it for the first time.

I’m neither an artist nor an art critic, and my museum-going résumé doesn’t include visits to the Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, or the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to name a few notable omissions. But in the span of my own experience, the Barnes was a unique and utterly distinctive way to experience art, specifically the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And there’s a hell of a lot of it to look at: In the 40-plus years before his death in a 1951 car accident Dr. Albert C. Barnes (born 1/2/1872 in Philadelphia to a poor working-class family) amassed the greatest private art collection in North America. In the 2003 edition of his book Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, investigative journalist John Anderson wrote that the collection “is valued at more than $6 billion [This is not a typo — A.S.] … including some 69 Cezannes (more than in all the museums in Paris), 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis, and no fewer than 180 Renoirs…”

Barnes made a fortune circa 1900 with a silver nitrate-based antiseptic called Argyrol, which was widely administered to infants in eyedrop form; he began collecting art around 1910, and is alleged to have paid $100 for his first painting by Picasso. In 1925, construction of  the building that houses the Barnes Foundation galleries (as well as the founder’s private residence) was completed on a 12-acre estate in Merion, PA; four years later, Dr. Barnes sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to collecting and to the Foundation. In his will, the childless Barnes dedicated the bulk of his fortune to the perpetuation of the Foundation along with a long list of explicit, ironclad instructions. Foremost among these was that none of the works would ever be sold or incorporated in touring exhibitions; that admission to the grounds would be strictly limited (it was by invitation only during Barnes’ lifetime); and that the collection would be displayed, in perpetuity, exactly as the good doctor himself had placed the paintings, furniture, light fixtures, etc. within the galleries.

Barnes’ eccentric and very personal arrangements of his works have the effect of turning Great Art into something more intimate and human, less entombed and intimidating in their Overwhelming Greatness. Compared to, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his displays are very crowded (see photo at right); the paintings are not organized chronologically and there are no title plaques on the walls (viewers use laminated identification sheets instead). Barnes’ singular and stoutly-defended interpretation of what he considered the key elements in any

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

given work of art led him to add metal wall-hangings, inspired by/akin to certain lines and shapes within the paintings; and to place antique chairs, chests, and candelabra beneath certain canvases. These objects bear what I’d call a quasi-mystical relationship to the paintings, except that for Albert Barnes there was nothing “mystical” about it. Speaking to students, scholars, and artists, he would explain — in concise and almost clinical terms, very different from the language of art criticism then or now — the specific visual ways in which these objects, their lines and planes, related to and mirrored each other. (Excerpts from Barnes’ monologues are preserved on the present-day audio tour of the collection.)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Some of my own favorite works on display at the Barnes included Van Gogh‘s The Factory and one of his seven portraits of The Postman Joseph Roulin; Cezanne‘s epic Card Players (1890-92); Renoir‘s large-scale painting of his family including his infant son, the future film director Jean Renoir; and various works by Modigliani including Young Redhead In An Evening Dress (1918) and Portrait of Leopold Zborowski (1919). The Barnes collection also includes several cabinets filled with African sculptures and masks; and a set of Native American blankets from the Southwest, unusually large pieces that are gorgeously woven and in impeccable condition.

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the Barnes collection as Albert Barnes intended it to be seen, because that opportunity soon will be lost to future generations. This 12/7/09 article on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times reports that on January 2, 2010, five second-floor galleries will be closed and turned into a conservation suite so that their contents may be dismantled and prepared for eventual transportation to the Foundation’s controversial new $150-million building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, now under construction and slated for completion in 2012.

The reasons why and how this turn of events has come to pass are far too complex to discuss here;  interested readers should turn, for starters, to John Watson’s Art Held Hostage. In his remarks at the 11/13/09 groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum, Barnes Foundation chairman Bernard Watson said:

“The final decade of the 20th century had seen the foundation incurring annual deficits and depleted financial resources, resulting, in large part, from an endless series of expensive and acrimonious lawsuits, going back as early as the 1950s. The foundation’s ability to prosper, or indeed survive, in its Merion location was exacerbated by local regulations limiting visitation to the galleries…Philanthropists and foundations were simply not giving money to an organization that had a legacy of expensive and distracting litigation, no credible business plan, or a governance structure that would make implementation of such a plan possible. None of the people who continue to raise their voices in angry objection to moving the collection to the Parkway reached into their pockets to support us in any meaningful way in Merion.”

Young Redhead In An Evening Dress by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

YOUNG REDHEAD IN AN EVENING DRESS by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

In his L.A. Times post, on the other hand, Christopher Knight noted:

“Most every art and cultural critic who has written on the subject has opposed the plan, which will shutter the astounding Post-Impressionist and early Modern art collection in suburban Merion, dismantle what ranks as the greatest American cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century and relocate the art five short miles to a hoped-for tourist venue downtown.”

Finally, my good friend Jay Schwartz, lifelong Philadelphia resident and dedicated preservationist of the city’s cultural and architectural treasures, wrote me in an 11/30/09 email:

“I do NOT think it makes more sense for the collection to be in Center City. The decision calls into question the validity of all wills. I do not think it was effectively demonstrated that there was no other good option. One…would have been to sell off some paintings to get [the Foundation] back on [its] feet. While this [sale] is also forbidden by the will, I think Dr. Barnes would have preferred this option.

“I also think the current location is perfect, beautiful, and NOT so difficult to find or get to. The collection is more accessible than ever before, and that if someone cannot make the small effort that you just made (‘small’ once you are in Philadelphia, that is), they probably don’t need to see it.

“Of course, another solution would be for the various parties that saw the opportunity to hijack the collection to have donated a tiny fraction of what the move will cost [in order] to keep things as they were — that would have fixed everything. They had no interest in that, though, only in doing things their way and to benefit what they wanted to benefit.

“While I have not read [John Anderson’s] book, I feel I am familiar enough with the events to make these judgement calls. It was a freakish chain of events that made all of this happen, and there were no good guys in the ugly story, except for the hapless Friends of the Barnes (former students), whom the last judge decided had no legal standing.”

Barnes2-B.Krist_U

Jerry Wexler died August 14, 2008 at his home in Sarasota, Florida, age 91. This was the site of my only in-person encounter with the fabled Atlantic Records executive and producer, in January 2001, when Leslie and I had dinner with Jerry and his wife Jean Arnold. But as he did with so many others, Wex and I sustained a long-distance relationship by phone and fax, UPS and USPS. (In 2005, I was surprised and honored to receive a gift of the Ray Charles box set, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959, from the guy who produced nearly every track on its seven CDs.) In my case, these communications continued until about nine months before his death, after Jean suffered a stroke and Jerry went into terminal decline. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

On Friday, October 30, 2009 at the Directors Guild Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Jerry Wexler finally got the send-off he deserved. I’m not sure why it took over a year to happen, but the memorial was timed to coincide with two all-star Madison Square Garden concerts benefiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (JW was inducted in 1987 in the Non-Performer category). There may have been some overlap in attendance between the two events, but with the notable exception of Bonnie Raitt, none of the featured MSG performers showed up to honor Wex — including Aretha Franklin and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, the two whose careers were most closely entwined with his own.

Sam’s wife Joyce Moore appeared and explained that Sam was exhausted from his on-stage exertions of the previous night but sent his love and respect nonetheless. Aretha didn’t even send a message to be read in her absence — pretty cold, if you ask me, since it was Jerry Wexler who transformed ‘Re into the Queen of Soul through his production, his song selection, his choice of studio musicians and arrangers, and his relentless promotional campaigning.

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

The proceedings began with welcoming remarks from Jerry’s surviving children, Paul Wexler and Lisa Wexler; Paul acknowledged that “most of what I am today, I owe to my father…I wouldn’t change a lick, not even a note.” (Their older sister Anita, Jerry’s third child with his first wife Shirley, died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness before the age of 40.) We watched a pair of stunning video clips, culled from a PBS-type live-in-studio telecast circa 1972, in which the original Meters backed up first Professor Longhair and then Mac Rebbenack a/k/a Dr. John, with Allen Toussaint sitting in on piano. (‘Fess recorded brilliantly for Atlantic in 1949 and again in ’53; and despite his contentious relationship with Wexler, Rebbenack reached a career commercial peak during his Atlantic years, 1971-1974.)

The next video segment was no less compelling: Aretha Franklin performing in an unidentified church (possibly New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A., the site of her live recording Amazing Grace in January 1972), accompanied by a band and choir led, I think, by James Cleveland (also not identified). As the camera panned over the ecstatic congregation, we could see a slim long-haired white man rise from a rear seat, clapping in time: Mick Jagger.

“Peace in the Valley,” beautifully sung a capella by Vaneese Thomas, was the first live performance of the event. JW was a friend and admirer of her late father Rufus Thomas (1917-2001), and the 1960 Rufus & Carla Thomas duet “‘Cause I Love You” marked the start of the Stax/Atlantic partnership. Jerry then appeared in an undated interview to offer up a few well-polished anecdotes from his early years at Atlantic. At under five minutes, this segment was too brief: I would’ve liked to hear more from the man himself.

A succession of speakers offered their tributes. Jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins compared Wex to Bob Dylan in his “genius for absorbing everything in American music and giving back in a new way.” Giddins noted that at their first meeting, JW only wanted to talk about Adrian Rollini (a gifted if little-remembered white jazz player of the Twenties and Thirties) and that there was barely a song in Bing Crosby’s vast discography that Jerry could not sing from memory. In passing, Gary remarked that Nesuhi Ertegun, the younger brother of JW’s partner Ahmet Ertegun, “was referred to by jazz musicians as ‘the good Ertegun.'” Even if true, it was a cheap shot we could have done without, particularly since Ahmet’s widow Mica Ertegun was in the audience.

I’m a faithful listener to Bob Porter on “Saturday Morning Function” (WBGO-Newark NJ) while other readers may recognize his name from the production credits of numerous Prestige soul-jazz albums and assorted Atlantic reissues. Porter noted that it was Wexler who brought in some of the best R&B musicians of the period, people like [saxophonist] Sam “The Man” Taylor and [guitarist] Mickey Baker to form the first Atlantic studio band; who recruited the arranger Ray Ellis and who, in 1955, signed Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to the industry’s first formal independent production deal. “Make no mistake about it,” declared Porter, “it was Jerry Wexler and no other who was most responsible for bringing soul music to America.” (Full text of Bob’s remarks is posted here.)

Paul Wexler read a message from guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, and we watched a video tribute from West Coast music executive Jerry Greenberg, who began his 18-year Atlantic career in 1967 as Wexler’s gofer. Greenberg likened this formative period to boot camp in the Marine Corps, with JW as DI: “Either you made it through or they found your body in a swamp somewhere, six months later.” When Greenberg moved up the Atlantic ladder, another eager A&R aspirant, Mark Meyerson, arrived in 1969 to take his place. Meyerson remembered Wexler delineating the difference between the 12-bar and 16-bar blues for him on the piano, and summed up his ex-boss’s professional credo as “if you were awake, then you were working.”

The author David Ritz met Wexler while co-writing Ray Charles’ autobiography Brother Ray in the mid-Eighties. He later co-authored Jerry’s own memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life In American Music (published 1993), and the two men remained fast friends until the end. Ritz conveyed deep feelings of both love and loss as he hailed “a ferocious wit, a a super-funky storyteller.” (David’s speech is posted on YouTube — click here.) Engineer/producer Jimmy Douglass talked rather more about his own career than the occasion warranted: Forty years on, it seemed he still held a grudge towards Jerry for initially offering eager young Jimmy a job in the Atlantic warehouse instead of in the Atlantic studio (“I hated that job”). Eventually, Douglass made it to the control room and worked with acts ranging from Slave and Stanley Turrentine to Foreigner and the Gang of Four.

The last word, on a more appreciative note, came from Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow, who fondly remembered the man who delivered the eulogy at her husband’s funeral in December 1967. Of this heartbreaking moment in Macon, GA, JW later wrote: “I could barely compose myself. My voice cracked, my eyes filled with tears.” Four years later, he would return to Macon to deliver another eulogy, this time for guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

And now it was showtime.

Guitarist Jon Tiven led the backing band onstage, including bassist Jerry Jemmott (a veteran of countless JW-produced sessions), drummer Anton Fig, organist Mike Finnigan, and the members of  The Uptown Horns. First up was New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint — Wexler produced his 1978 album Motion — who played piano and sang on the winsome ballad “With You In Mind.”

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

For nearly 20 years, Lisa Wexler has played drums for (and booked, and managed) the Woodstock-based all-female band Big Sister. This group was an unknown quantity to me but their two songs were excellent. Lisa and bassist Desiree Williams locked into a push-and-pull rhythmic groove behind singer/guitarist Lara Parks on the Big Sister original “Talk Down to Me” and a stirring cover of Freddie Scott‘s 1967 soul classic “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” with Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group adding a third guitar to the churn. William Bell, a class act still in warmly expressive voice after 50 years on stage, sang “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (his Stax debut single, from ’61) joined by original Muscle Shoals sessioneers Spooner Oldham (piano) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) along with master drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.

More surprising was the appearance of actress Ronee Blakeley (Nashville, A Nightmare On Elm Street) — Wexler produced her 1975 album Welcome in Muscle Shoals — in a heartfelt if vocally uncertain duet with Lenny Kaye on “I Can’t Make It Alone.”  This Gerry Goffin/Carole King song is the closing track on the original LP version of Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield (1969), which stands as JW’s greatest production for any white artist.

If I was surprised to see Ronee Blakeley, I was frankly amazed to see Joe South make his unsteady way to center stage — all the way from Atlanta GA with his big Gretsch hollow-body guitar in hand, maybe the same one he played on Aretha Arrives and Blonde On Blonde. To the best of my recollection, the creator of “Games People Play,” “Hush,” and “Down In the Boondocks” had not appeared in NYC since 1994, when

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with B. Purdie (drums), J. Jemmott (bass), J. Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with Anton Fig (drums), Jerry. Jemmott (bass), Jon Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

he’d joined Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, and the late great Ted Hawkins for one of those singer/songwriter in-the-round shows at The Bottom Line. Overweight, unkempt, and moving slow (possibly due to diabetes, which can cause loss of feeling in the extremities), Joe nonetheless hit all his marks on “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” He sounded just like Joe South (i.e. great) and Jerry Jemmott played his butt off on the tune.

Another old Muscle Shoals hand, Donnie Fritts, sang and played piano on “We Had It All” — a favorite of Wexler’s from Donnie’s 1974 Atlantic album Prone To Lean. Lou Ann Barton ably represented the Austin music community with her rendition of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” a song from her JW-produced album Old Enough (1982); she looked and sounded terrific.

In 1963, at age seventeen, Bettye LaVette scored her only Top Ten R&B hit with the Atlantic single “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” Bettye told us that a year later, when she announced to a nonplussed Jerry Wexler that she was leaving the label, “he took out his personal checkbook and wrote me a check for $500. ‘Bettye,’ he said, ‘if you’re really leaving, you’re gonna need this’ — and he was right!” The Detroit soul survivor then offered a deep-blue “Drown In My Own Tears” — a #1 R&B hit for Ray Charles in 1956 and one of Wex’s all-time classics. Bettye LaVette can really bring the pain like few other singers working today.

Bettye was a tough act to follow but the blue-eyed soul brother Steve Bassett proved up to the task with his rousing closer (closing rouser?) of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Signed by Wex’s dear friend John Hammond (1910-1987) in 1980, Steve made his lone Columbia album in Muscle Shoals with co-producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. It didn’t sell beans, but gradually Bassett built up a solid career as an in-demand jingle and session singer, later self-releasing a slew of his own CDs from home base in Richmond, VA. Steve’s unpretentious, joyful delivery of the Big Joe Turner flag-waver sent us out onto West 57th Street on an uplifting cloud of good feeling, grateful to have been part of the occasion.

Inscribed title page from my copy of JW's autobiography

Title page inscribed "To Andy, truly one of us" from my copy of JW's autobiography

In attendance: Danny Fields, Aaron Fuchs (Tuff City Records, wearing a vintage Cash Box Magazine satin baseball jacket), A&R man/producer Mitch Miller (99 years young on July 4, 2010), music producer/filmmaker Leo Sacks, Paul Shaffer, Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Jeremy Tepper (Sirius/XM), attorney Judy Tint (Rhythm & Blues Foundation), photographer Dick Waterman, Harry Weinger (Motown/Universal); Atlantic veterans Jim Delehant, Barbara Harris, and Phillip Rauls; scribes Jim Bessman, Stanley Booth, Kandia Crazy Horse, Deborah Frost, and Holly George-Warren; and musicians Ben E. King, Bonnie RaittG.E. Smith, and Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band).

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

September 24, 2009

Gigs, More Music Writing

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Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James [Burnt to Last, Waycross GA]

Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James for Burnt to Last

Gram Parsons is the third most famous person to grow up in Waycross, Georgia, after the actors Burt Reynolds (no introduction needed) and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright on TV’s “Bonanza,” 1959-1965). Parsons’ sad and untimely death at age 26 (heroin overdose, 9/19/1973) cut short a life of both inspirational achievement and unfulfilled promise: Like James Dean and Sam Cooke, Gram left us wondering “what if…”

Gram Parsons never had anything close to a hit single and not one of the albums on which he was featured made the Billboard Top 75. But in the decades since his passing, he’s exerted an incalculable influence on American music through his work on the ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo; on the first two albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, the group Gram co-founded with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman; and on his two solo albums, especially 1973’s Grievous Angel.

Parsons is widely recognized as the progenitor of country rock  — a term he detested, according to his close friend and former harmony singer Emmylou Harris — and has been the subject of five full-length biographies (with a sixth book forthcoming!). I won’t claim that the music of (for example) the great R&B singer and songwriter Hank Ballard has proven as influential over the long term as that of Gram Parsons. But I note without malice that Ballard — who placed fourteen singles in the R&B Top 20, who performed vigorously until a few years before his death at age 75 in 2003, and whose life must have been at least as interesting — has yet to be memorialized in either hard or soft cover.

The first Gram Parsons Guitar Pull (GP/GP) was held Thanksgiving 1998 at the home of Waycross resident and GP fan Dave Griffin. Eventually, the event outgrew Griffin’s backyard and moved to the town fairgrounds. This year’s two-day GP/GP featured headliners Leon Russell and Charlie Louvin, along with a great many local acts, and my friend Josh Rosenthal planned to record Charlie’s set for future release on his Tompkins Square label.

On Friday morning (9/18), we flew from LaGuardia to Savannah GA, rented a car, and drove into town for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. This sumptuous all-you-could-eat array of Southern cooking proved well worth the 45-minute wait to be seated at a large table of strangers and served family style. For the all-in price of $16.00, I sampled eight or nine different dishes including fried chicken, baked ham in gravy, Brunswick stew, succotash, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn “dressing” (stuffing to us Yankees), chased with copious amounts of sweet iced tea and topped by a small but delicious portion of fresh blueberry cobbler for dessert.

A Taste of Heaven: Lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room [Savannah GA]

Taste of Heaven: Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, Savannah GA

We drove south and west to Waycross and checked into our room at the Jameson Inn — a chain motel situated at one of those just-off-the-interstate commercial intersections, the unrelieved ugliness of which is enough to make you weep for the forests and fields, even the earlier 20th century buildings, that were sacrificed for its construction. Next stop was the Waycross City Auditorium where GP’s latest biographer, the Emmy Award-winning Florida journalist Bob Kealing, was interviewing Charlie Louvin, just arrived from his home near Nashville. (Also on the scene: Bob Buchanan, credited as GP’s co-writer on the classic “Hickory Wind.”)

On the night of February 22, 1956, this building was the site of a concert featuring the Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley, attended by nine-year-old Gram Parsons and his friends, the 14-year-old twins Daphne and Diane Delano. (Gram got Elvis’ autograph that night and often spoke of this life-changing event in later years.)

Constructed in 1937 under the auspices of the WPA, City Auditorium hosted countless country, R&B, and gospel performances for at least three decades before being converted into a youth basketball facilty. The original stage remains in place but backstage is littered with debris and the entire building is rather decrepit, with broken window panes and ceiling tiles torn loose. The surrounding neighborhood is largely African-American and looked poor even for Waycross, an immense, centuries-old live oak among its few hopeful signs of life. Led by the vivacious Mary Beth Kennedy, a small but dedicated preservationist group is campaigning to restore this building to its former glory, with $1 million raised thus far — let’s hope they succeed. On to the fairgrounds and the music…

A.S. under the live oak opposite City Auditorium [Waycross GA]

A.S. under the live oak tree opposite Waycross City Auditorium.

Eleven years after its inception, GP/GP is still very much a laid-back, down-home affair. The locals brought their own folding chairs and beer coolers, and people wandered freely from out front to back stage; I didn’t see a single uniformed cop. We missed nearly all the supporting bands.

In 1970, Leon Russell played piano on the Gram Parsons-sung version of “Wild Horses,” the Jagger/Richards ballad recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers about a year before the Stones cut it for Sticky Fingers. Russell’s personal reminiscence of GP in his spoken introduction to the song was the most personable moment of his set. The rest was devoted to a briskly energetic but superficial run-through of everything from his own best-known songs (“Dixie Lullaby,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”) to “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (for two verses), “Paint It Black” (an instrumental interpolation), and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” Even “Wild Horses” was performed at a jaunty mid-tempo, with none of the pathos of the Burritos’ version.

I liked Leon’s young Alabaman guitarist Chris Simmons, a gutsy and versatile blues-rocker in the Duane Allman/Ry Cooder lineage. Russell’s piano playing sounded fine but he was impassive and unreadable behind his flowing white beard, white mane of hair, and ever-present shades. To the best of my recollection, Leon Russell has never even been nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even though he played keyboards on and/or arranged “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring,” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey” (among countless other Sixties recordings) and placed nine solo albums in the Billboard Top 40 of which six are certified gold according to the RIAA database.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when 82-year-old Charlie Louvin was as good, maybe better than I’d heard him sound on previous occasions in Austin and NYC. The venerable singer performed for two hours (!) and sang all but two songs. The set list ranged from Louvin Brothers classics (“Knoxville Girl,” “Why Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”) to folk standards (“It Takes a Worried Man”) to white-boy blues (Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”) to a poignant “Hickory Wind” offered in tribute to Gram Parsons.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

Charlie’s voice isn’t what it was in 1964 but he remains an engaged and engaging performer and a committed interpreter of classic material. He cares about the songs, he talks about the songs, and he delivers the songs with real feeling. The current Charlie Louvin band features the brilliant finger-picking guitarist Ben Hall (age 21), who calmly blew me away with his featured number — Johnny Bond’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” — and who will be recording his own album for Tompkins Square in the next few months.

GP/GP also featured a number of south Georgia crafts people selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, CDs, and specialty food items. The one that caught my eye was Michael James of Waycross, who combines the use of computer program with his handiwork to burn photographic images into pieces of wood — at least I think that’s what he tried to explain to this computer-age cave dweller. I bought three pieces including the GP image displayed above; an intricate reproduction in wood of this Fillmore Auditorium poster, and a smaller piece that uses a mid-Sixties photograph of Bob Dylan taken by my good friend, the late David Gahr. Michael’s company Burnt To Last doesn’t have a dedicated Web site but you can email him: BurntToLast@hotmail.com

When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.

Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)

Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad.  I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.

ELLEN McILWAINE [Photo: Peter Sutherland]Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.

But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.

McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.

Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again”live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu”live, 9.26.2008

Hubert Sumlin On Stage (2003)

Hubert Sumlin, with hat and Strat (2003)

Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.

(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)

Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.

There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).

-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me”live in Germany, 1964

June 22, 2009

Books, Gigs

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“You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other major achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog.'” — Nesuhi Ertegun (undated quote from the first page of Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography)

jacketimage1Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a creative pairing as significant as any in the history of Our Music, have written a book. Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography (Simon & Schuster). Their story is told entirely in their own words, with co-author David Ritz acting as chief interrogator and structural engineer in the style of his earlier collaborations with Ray Charles (Brother Ray, 1978), Etta James (Rage To Survive, 1995), and Jerry Wexler (Rhythm and The Blues, 1993). However, Randy Poe’s appended discography (“The Songs”) is necessarily limited to the Leiber & Stoller’s charting tunes: Deeper diggers may turn to the mind-boggling Nearly Complete Leiber & Stoller Discography. (You won’t believe how many people have cut “Kansas City” in the wake of Little Willie Littlefield and especially Wilbert Harrison.)

Jerry Leiber and MIke Stoller, along with David Ritz, came to Barnes & Noble (Lincoln Center) on the evening of 6/10/09. Born just weeks apart, the two songwriters turned 76 in the spring of this year. Stoller (the bald one) was alert, energetic, and witty. Leiber was more subdued and rather inert physically (in the book, he refers to a 20-year history of heart problems) but conversationally he got his licks in. Sadly but predictably, this SRO in-store attracted almost no one under 45 with a few notable exceptions such as Lincoln Barron (son of ace lensman Ted Barron) and Doc Pomus‘ grand-daughter. Actress Loretta Swit (of TV’s “M.A.S.H.”) and Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer were importuned for autographs by some of the pale, unshaven, middle-aged men in unironed shirts who are always part of the crowd at such events.

A 25-minute conversation in which the songwriters answered questions posed by David Ritz mostly just recapped anecdotes from the book or even widely known from previous books, interviews, TV documentaries, etc. A lengthy Q&A session proved only slightly more productive, with valuable time taken by such inquiries as: “I’m a singer, and my question is, when a vocalist is interpreting your material, what elements of the song do you think he or she should focus on?

Leiber, after pausing to stare silently at the speaker: “I didn’t answer because I’m still trying to understand your question.”

Vocalist: “What I’m trying to say is, what are the most important aspects of your compositions that a singer should understand or concentrate on?”

Stoller: “The WORDS and the MELODY.”

Asked by my friend Arthur Levy about their early relationship with Phil Spector early in the career of the boy-genius-turned-convicted-murderer, Jerry Leiber replied with this incomplete but telling sentence: “I never knew what a headache was…”

Mike Stoller: “Phil was probably 18 or 19 then but he’d tell people he was younger, like 16. We were 17 when we cut ‘Hound Dog’ so Phil had to be, you know, more of a prodigy than we’d been.”

An elderly gent raised his hand to announce himself “probably the only person in this room to have co-written a song with you.”

“Ray Passman, is that you?” replied Stoller, peering into the audience. “Ray, are you still alive?” (“Get Him,” a 1963 rarity by the Exciters, was co-written by Leiber, Stoller, Passman, and “Bert Russell” a/k/a Bert Berns.)

yaketyyak-cover_The event lasted for over three hours, mainly because of the sheer number of people who stood in line to get their books signed, have their pictures taken with the authors, and/or chat with L&S in order to lavish them with doofy if heartfelt compliments and reveal that person’s bottomless knowledge of the duo’s career, etc. Finally, after a tedious 45-minute wait, L&S signed my book (as did David Ritz, always genuinely warm and friendly) and both my LPs. One was a UK collection of Presley versions of their tunes, with a nice cover shot of the team and Elvis. The other was Yakety Yak, a 1958 Atlantic album by “The Leiber & Stoller Big Band” — actually the entire Count Basie organization playing jazz arrangements (both swinging and hilarious) of “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” etc. and complete with deadly serious liner notes by Nat Hentoff.

Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiographyreview by Geoffrey Himes (Baltimore City Paper, 8.12.2009)

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.

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?