Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Morning Gospel Throwdown | The Soul Stirrers Part II

by Jen Eide

Well, I enjoyed a previous throwdown featuring Jimmy Outler fronting the Soul Stirrers so much that I decided to do it again. This performance is not as raw and frenzied, but demonstrates what a remarkably soulful singer Outler was. I believe that's Leroy Crume on guitar. This is a 1963 performance of "Listen to the Angels Sing."

You may be wondering by now just where this footage is coming from. Back in the early to mid-sixties there was a weekly series called TV Gospel Time, which was remarkable not only for its performances, but also because each episode was broadcast from a different city! This allows us to dig deep into the scenes of different regions and preserves the performances of some really obscure world class singers.

In his book Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, J. Jerome Zolten provides us with a bit of information about this historic footage: "The show, a syndicated program aimed at African American viewers, was attracting fans outside that demographic who appreciated the music more as folk tradition than religious expression. In a special gospel issue, Billboard reported that by the mid-1960s, TV Gospel Time, 'seen in 50 markets across the country,...pointedly has no preacher nor does it display religious symbols' and is 'viewed as entertainment in the most positive sense,' demonstrating that 'the broad mass of Americans, both Negro and white, can appreciate each other's cultural heritage and contributions.'"

I've always used music--and art, film and fiction--like this. It's a joy (and sometimes a great relief) to step outside of yourself, walk a mile in someone else's shoes, explore a culture that is quite different from your own. Whether it's punk rock, hip-hop, deep soul or gospel, music can provide us with the opportunity to stop fearing our fellow human beings or seeing them as other. A change is gonna come. And if we can get rowdy, out of our heads, or really feel embodied, well, damn, that's just a bonus.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Colourmusic to Play at Euclid Records Tuesday, September 9th at 6 p.m.!

Coming from Oklahoma, Colourmusic will be gracing the stage at Euclid Records with their amazing live show! It's even the on the day their debut album "f, monday, orange, february, venus, lunatic, 1 or 13" hits stores. Basing their work on Newton’s color theories, the band will be performing for free before their show at The Bluebird later that night. Come on out and see an amazing show by this amazing band!

You can sample some of the tunes on myspace and their website.

Now check out this great video for "Yes!" & "You Can Call Me By My Name":

Euclid Records
601 East Lockwood
St.Louis, MO 63119
(314) 961-8978

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Morning Gospel Throwdown | Brother Joe May & Jackie Verdell

by Jen Eide

Here's Brother Joe May introducing the Davis Sisters--that's Jackie Verdell singing lead on "We Need Power Lord"--from the short lived show TV Gospel Time. Despite the amazing performances, TV Gospel Time never reached a wide audience--some shortsighted programmer decided to air this show on Sunday mornings during the time everyone was at church! This performance is from 1964.

If you enjoyed last week's Davis Sisters/Jackie Verdell post, I think you'll love this. Brother Joe May is a legend that really needs no introduction--you don't earn the title "The Thunderbolt of the Middle-West" for nothin'. Here's Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May performing "You're Gonna Need Him" which rivals any of the great secular soul duets of this era in terms of excitement. Looks to me like this was from the same episode as the previous video, but this tune features a band and choir. This performance is actually available on a Shanachie compilation, entitled When Gospel Was Gospel.

There's an outstanding Wikipedia entry detailing the career of Jackie Verdell. She's just one of many gospel singers--like Jimmy Outler of the Soul Stirrers--that should have found great success in the secular realm as soul singers, but sadly didn't find an audience.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

John Coltrane's "Summertime"

by Steve Pick

The first time I heard John Coltrane, back in 1983, I saw God pouring out of the speakers. The universe melted, animate and inanimate matter became one, and I was aware of it all. I have never taken LSD in my life.

I am not a believer in things mystical or spiritual or supernatural, but if I were, Coltrane would be my evidence. His music, while grounded in the most sophisticated developments of theory, was often meant to express his own beliefs in the connections between here, now, and the infinite. Working in record stores all these years, I am aware that there are people who would follow Trane only so far - the interesting thing is that while some drew the line after Blue Train, others went on to A Love Supreme, and still others stopped after his wife Alice joined the band. It's a rare listener who accepts that one person, with a consistent musical quest, did everything Coltrane did before he passed away far too soon in 1967.

The album My Favorite Things is a clear transition from the relatively mainstream jazz of Giant Steps (mainstream, that is, if that's what you call writing one of the most complex, densely structured pieces ever created). The title track is justly one of his most famous works, a soprano sax showcase for the possibilities of a simple tune played over modal harmony. On the same album, we find Coltrane's version of "Summertime."

When I started researching this cut, which I'd heard dozens of times without thinking too deeply about it, I thought he'd stripped it down to three chords, but eventually I realized that, while not exactly following Gerswhin's original harmonic structure, there are changes within the individual lyric lines of the verse. However, the opening chord of each line becomes the important one, as every time a new line begins, there is an emphasis not necessarily placed on any of the concluding lines, except the last note of the verse.

That may or may not make sense to you when you listen to the cut, but think of it this way. In a weird sense, Coltrane and his band - McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums - are almost thinking of this song the way punk bands would interpret standards two decades later. Melodies follow the barest outline of the chord changes, rather than hew strictly to the tightest of structures - after "Giant Steps," this idea must have seemed intensely liberating to these players.

Coltrane launches in from the beginning with a flurry of long notes at the beginning of phrases followed by an onslaught of quarter notes, eighths, and sixteenths. He never plays the tune as we know it, but he never forgets it, either. Bits and pieces of the familiar are always strewn in between the elaboration, and you'll find yourself singing along at the same time you're flying through space with the stream of tenor sax sounds.

There is a kind of push-pull thing going on here, too. On the first and third lines of each verse, the rhythm section is ahead of the beat, or perhaps directly on it, always creating a throb which sometimes hits the chords in question on the head. But, on the second and fourth lines, there is always a release (especially as these come from the minor to the major, particularly with the fourth line), and the instruments swing. You'd think this would get predictable over 11 and a half minutes, but these guys have so many different ways of pulling off essentially the same trick you never get tired.

Tyner's solo dances much lighter than Coltrane's, something he would do again and again for the next five years of their partnership. For all the power of his chording, all the pulsations of his pedal work, Tyner's gift was a lyrical one, no matter how fast he played. As such, he was both a perfect complement and a perfect contrast to his employer.

Davis takes a strong solo here, too, one which bends and stretches the rhythm of the song while implying all the same harmonic ideas. And Jones - well, he was one of the most impressive drummers who ever lived, and you'll begin to understand why every time you play this track and hear a different nuance, a new placing of the kick drum, a subtle use of the hi-hat, a creatively unique approach to the ride cymbal. And, his two choruses of solo are an absolute hoot.

Coltrane comes back to restate the melody more directly than he'd done before, albeit as the band drops the harmonic changes altogether, and then it's all over. I assure you, you won't spend a better eleven and one half minutes today.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Morning Gospel Throwdown | The Davis Sisters

By Jen Eide

Here's a great performance of The Davis Sisters singing "By and By" from 1964. That's Ruth Davis singing lead and then Jackie Verdell stepping out singing second lead towards the middle part of the tune. Jackie is a powerful singer. She certainly made an impression on a young Aretha Franklin who remembers her in her 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots: "I also considered Jackie Verdell of the Davis Sisters one of the best and most underrated female soul singers of all time. It was through Jackie that I learned the expression 'Girl, you peed tonight'--meaning you were dynamite. Several nights Jackie sang so hard she literally had a spot or two on her robe from peeing. Singing far too hard, I also peed here and there in the early days; I quickly realized no one should sing that hard." Jackie Verdell is another one of those singers that ''crossed over'' to the secular side, but sadly not much came of her career--a few singles here and there for Peacock and Decca and occasional session work. I just noticed she's credited on the back cover of Van Morrison's Moondance.

It's a Davis Sisters double feature! Here's "On the Right Road" with Ruth Davis lead backed by a full choir. When Ruth Davis starts shoutin' the whole room catches fire. Jackie Verdell is standing with the rest of the Davis Sisters on the lower right.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Bon Iver song!

by Jen Eide

If you've been reading this blog much, you've certainly heard me extoll the greatness of Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. I think singer-songwriter Justin Vernon may very well be the Bob Dylan of his generation (or at the very least, The Band). I can't imagine anything knocking it out of the #1 spot for my year end Best of 2008--although, if the new Deerhoof album, Offend Maggie (due out in October) is as good as last year's Friend Opportunity, there may be a tussle.

Here's a video of Bon Iver road testing a new song entitled "Blood Bank." It's a bit more band focused than the solitary leanings of the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago, but I like where he's going with this. Jack tipped me off about the existence of this video--thanks Bubble!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Doc Watson's "Summertime"

By Steve Pick

Depending on whether one chooses to reprise both verses or simply the first verse of "Summertime," the last lines of the performance can be either "Hush little baby, don't you cry" or "Pappy and Mammy are standing by." I think it's an interesting choice, because the former puts the emphasis on the child learning to do for itself - accept the world as it is, and stop complaining about it - or on the child learning to depend on others - don't worry about a thing, we'll take care of it. Of course, the song as a whole gives us both views, which should add up to a well-rounded individual, but the final line tends to stick in the memory banks for a while.

Here we have two different recordings by Doc Watson, one done in the 1970s with his son Merle Watson, a few years before he was killed in a tractor accident, and the other done in the late 1970s with his grandson Richard. Both are from the first school, urging the child to stop fussing and crying. It's impossible to hear these songs and remove yourself from the knowledge of Merle's early passing, especially knowing how devastating this loss was for Doc. In fact, it's pretty darn difficult not to hear the 1999 version as, at least in part, an elegy for his son.

The arrangements are basically the same - in fact, a third recording of "Summertime," done in between these two with David Grisman, is pretty much the same, as well. But, then, Doc Watson has thrived on his refusal to change with the times - he has always been the same folk practitioner he was in 1960 when the little Appalachian blind guitarist became a national figure for the first time. He played the songs the way he learned them, and while there is a recognizable personality in the way his fingers glide seamlessly across the fretboard, and his voice floats across a melody, he would probably be the last to tell you this is on purpose. It's just that Doc Watson is who he is, and he's known that person, musically, at least, since he was a boy.

So, we have a jazzy/bluesy take on "Summertime," with seventh chords, an emphasis on the root notes, and delicately bent notes peppering the melody and commenting on the vocals. In the earlier version, Doc Watson sounds as though he's remembering his early days of fatherhood with warmth. His son was all that was possible, the future that would be carrying on Doc's legacy and which would add to it as well. In the later version, he sounds as though he's remembering the loss. While he can't bring himself to contradict the requirements of the song, and deny the hope for the future he found in the lyrics, there is a grit in Doc's voice which shows us that Pappy and Mammy don't always have the power to keep the child safe.

Both versions are exquisitely beautiful, and both contain seeds of positive and negative connotations. It's not as though Doc Watson didn't understand the tragedy of life before his son died - he'd sang too many murder ballads based on too many people he knew were real - and it's not as though he hasn't carried on for decades after Merle's accident. Something must bring him hope, or at least a desire to see what happens next. You can hear these things in his version of "Summertime" because that's the way the song is written. Life and death, hope and fear, individual and community, it's all part of the yin and yang Heyward must have seen in the African-American culture he was consciously aping when he wrote these words.

R.I.P. Isaac Hayes

I wish I could come up with a great tribute to send Ike out with, but I just can't. He was too amazing and too important. Watching this video of him performing "Shaft," the finale of the Wattstax movie, says everything words cannot. Goddamn mortality. See you in the next world Black Moses. Damn.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Morning Gospel Throwdown | The Soul Stirrers

by Jen Eide

The Soul Stirrers certainly produced some fine secular soul singers--Sam Cooke and Johnny Taylor, of course--and watching this video you've got to wonder why Jimmy Outler's career never took off. Outler was Taylor's successor in the Soul Stirrers and was a charismatic performer with a frenzied vocal delivery. He went on to perform secular music as Jimmy Outler's Sensational Six, but is an unfortunate footnote in history who doesn't even warrant an entry in the All Music Guide. Hopefully one day that will be rectified--for now Outler only gets a few sentences in Arthur Kempton's book Boogaloo where it's noted that by 1967 he was "roadkill on the gospel highway--knifed to death over a woman." Yikes. Here's Outler singing lead on "I'm A Soldier."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Jeanne Lee & Ran Blake's "Summertime"

by Steve Pick

As I pick my way through this slower-than-expected-yet-still-going summerlong project of discoveries about the song "Summertime," I'm struck by the range of interpetation available in such a simple song. I expected this to be the case, or I wouldn't have started writing about it in the first place, but the thematic diversity is actually greater than I expected. I knew the song fit into dozens of different genres, but what I didn't realize is just how many meanings could come out of the same eight lines.

Jeanne Lee was a jazz singer I'd never encountered until Jen pointed my attention to her. Her early partnership with pianist Ran Blake, another name I didn't know, led to a debut album in 1961 called "The Newest Sound Around," an impressive title given that in the jazz world at that time, new sounds were appearing pretty much every time there was a shipment of records to the stores. This was the time of Coltrane's and Coleman's classic quartets, you know.

Though Lee would go on to become one of the leading figures in avant-garde vocal jazz, and Blake would team with Gunther Schuller to mix classical and jazz into the third stream, there is nothing in this version of "Summertime" which should scare off any mainstream jazz listener. Blake likes lightly dissonant chords, but these aren't even half as far from normal harmony as those used by Thelonious Monk on a daily basis back then.

Blake opens the cut with a compelling, airy piano figure, and Lee's soft alto coos into baby's ear with a tenderness mixed with a knowledge of how different the world really is from what she's singing. There is doubt that living is easy and the fish and cotton are so plentiful, but there is love for the infant, a desire to create a world in which nothing will harm it. She enters the song in the middle of a measure, before Blake has moved back to the tonal center, and this tension, which she resolves by stretching the word "Summertime" so she ends allied with the piano, is a powerful one, emphasizing the dichotomy between the world as it is and as it should be.

After assuring the child of daddy's money and mama's beauty (and one of these days, a feminist reading of all this needs to come out), Blake slides through ethereal chords until plonking down a loudly dissonant chord leading to a violently exhilarating gospel-influenced section before settling into a pumping and rumbling dark groove. Lee jumps in just behind the beat this time, and belts out the verse about the future of this child, making a statement that there is nothing she will not do to help the baby succeed in life.

Blake follows with some intriguing improvisation around the melody, melting its surface beauty into something luminous yet troubling, and then Lee counters with a soaring, confident verse of scat. The song ends with a reprise of the second verse, placing more emphasis on a slowed-down, completely tender delivery of the key lines, "Until that day, ain't nothing gonna harm you with Daddy and Mommy standing by."

I haven't yet heard a version of the song this determined to overcome adversity, and this much in love with the object of these words, the child. I don't think when Heyward wrote these lyrics for the opera that he thought the parents would believe what they were singing with quite so much conviction. But Jeanne Lee obviously felt there was no point in lying to a baby unless you at least wanted to try to make the lies come true.

Sunday Morning Gospel Throwdown | Charles Taylor Singers

By Jen Eide

I wish I could tell you more about Professor Charles Taylor except he is an inspired performer and there's at least a tiny bit more information out there about him than, say, Famous Renfroe (who may win the obscurity of obscurities award). Charles Taylor hailed from Alabama, moved to New York and was affiliated with some Pentecostal Churches there. There is some amazing sanctified singing here--check out the way Taylor works the crowd about midway through this performance of "He's My Rock, My Sword, My Shield" from 1962. Charles Taylor apparently released one album for Savoy in the late 1950's and maybe a handful of 45's--if anyone has any information please leave me a comment...Google has not been my friend today. What little information I have comes from a fine book on African-American midwestern gospel called How Sweet The Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, by Horace Clarence Boyer (which I notice you can pick up for about a buck plus S&H on Amazon right now). It's a fascinating read, and gives mention to the scene in St. Louis and the styles that emerged from the COGIC churches.

In a truly random series of events, I somehow wound up meeting national music critic Mike McGonigal on MySpace and he tipped me off to this unbelievable gospel radio show on WFMU in New York. Be sure to follow the link and check out Sinner's Crossroads with Kevin Nutt which you can stream or download for podcast. If you enjoyed the Charles Taylor video (or the Meditation Singers post from a few weeks back) you will love Sinner's Crossroads.

Let's also give Mike's blog 'Buked & Scorned a shout. If you have eclectic tastes in music and thought you were well rounded, McGonigal will still point you down some avenues you may never have travelled. He hasn't written anything for it for awhile, but the archives go back to 2004.