Archive for the ‘The Essentials’ Category

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and the passion palpable in each note simmered. She was killing me softly with her song, though it was actually a duet with Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get to You.” I was a few months shy of 13 and – spurred by “With a Little Luck” by Wings – just discovering Top 40 radio. The sweet groove of “Closer I Get to You” stopped time for me, just about, and made me wish I could leap through my teen years and instantly become an adult.

But, of course, if wishes were horses we’d all own ranches. My $2-a-week allowance (upgraded to $5 once I hit 13) only went so far; it wouldn’t be until late 1981 or early ‘82 that one of her LPs – The Best of Roberta Flack – entered my collection. The way her voice soared into the sky one moment before gliding to Earth the next mesmerized me. All these years later, it still does.

The 10 tracks on The Best of herald love in its many splendors. While it’s an excellent encapsulation of her career to date, it doesn’t accurately reflect her debut, First Take, which I first heard decades later (as explained here). The first time I listened to it, I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – that its eight tracks didn’t exclusively chart the inner workings of the human heart. Recorded in early 1969, it instead navigates the nuances of life during a tumultuous time. Revolution was in the air, but so was love – and, for some, despair. The LP mixes jazz, soul and gospel in arrangements that never feel forced or sound cluttered.

I’d be remiss in not providing a quick-hit summary of her life up until this point. A musical prodigy, she earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 15, studying piano before switching to voice. She graduated at age 19 and became a student teacher in a Maryland suburb of D.C. while pursuing graduate studies in music. The passing of her father, however, caused her to curtail her education and pursue teaching full time.

That changed, of course. By the late ‘60s, she was wowing crowds three nights a week at a Capitol Hill restaurant. As jazz great Les McCann tells it, whenever he visited D.C. someone would encourage him to check her out. She bowled him over when he finally did in 1968; he quickly arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. That audition led to a three days of recording demos and then, a few months later, a full-fledged session for her debut LP. 

The taut rumble of “Compared to What,” which opens First Take, remains restrained throughout, though its lyrics (“The President, he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/No one gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason”) do not. “Angelitos Negros” is both pleading and reaching, a song one need not know Spanish to understand (though it helps to read a translation). “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” one of two Donny Hathaway-penned songs (this one co-written with Robert Ayers), places a heart’s desire ahead of society’s whims. “I Told Jesus,” the final song on the first side, is an old spiritual. 

The Leonard Cohen tune “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” opens the second side and then the slice of hypnotic love that is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” blooms like a flower captured by time-lapse photography. 

“Tryin’ Times,” the other Hathaway song (written with Leroy Hutson), speaks to tumult then and now: “But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer/If there was more love for your brother/But these are tryin’ times…”

“The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf for the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set, is an evocative slice of beat poetry set to song, conjuring the angst of a generation adrift in the bleating boredom and conformity of post-WWII America.

These aren’t teenager laments, in other words, but adult concerns and observations poignantly expressed in song. Roberta may not have written the words, but she feels them; her soul reverberates in each and every syllable.

The 50th anniversary edition, limited to 3000 copies (at least for now) and only available from SoulMusic.com, is well worth the $50. The CD bonus tracks include the single edits for “Compared to What” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the “First Time” b-side “Trade Winds,” as well as a live track McCann recorded in 1968 that was released in 1991 on the Les Is More compilation of his private recordings. The remaining 12 tracks are culled from the demos she recorded and sound as finished as the songs on First Take. Here are two examples:

As most music fans know, the album didn’t sell all that well upon its release, but sold enough for second and third efforts, Chapter Two (1970) and Quiet Storm (1971), to be released. Then Roberta received a phone call from none other than Clint Eastwood, who asked if he could use “First Time” in his movie Play Misty for Me. The rest, as they say, is history. The eight-track original album is a five-star affair; with the added bonus cuts, it’s beyond that.

Mortality and the passage of time has much been on my mind this past month, as I marked another year sailing around the sun on this ship we call Earth. We’ve entered unsettled waters of late, with towering waves thrashing the hull and cracking through rotted planks of wood that the captain, an incompetent steward if ever there was one, claimed sound prior to leaving port.

In any event, in this storm, I look back at all that’s come before with wonder and few regrets – yet, to borrow a lyric from Juliana Hatfield’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” find myself questioning “Where is the comfort in having been somewhere you know you can’t go again?” The past is behind us, in other words, and reliving past glories impacts the present not a bit. As she sings in “Fade Away,” albeit in a different context, “there is nothing I can say/that is not a cliche.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (which is not a cover of the classic Johnny Thunders song made famous by Guns N’ Roses), that’s no surprise. Along with “Fade Away,” it’s one of 11 God’s Foot demos she served up as a PledgeMusic premium in late 2014, while accruing cash to fund the 2015 Juliana Hatfield Three album Whatever, My Love.

The God’s Foot album, for those not in the know, was slated to be the follow-up to her 1995 Only Everything album. It was more a concept and less a stack of specific tracks, with Juliana racking up six-digit studio costs while recording in Woodstock, N.Y. Atlantic Records, her label home, rejected her efforts due to the dearth of a radio-friendly tune that could be pushed as a single, however. She recorded some more, they said no, and finally she gave in and asked to be released from her contract. They consented, but retained rights to the material she’d recorded for the unfinished album.

Two decades and several bootlegged versions of God’s Foot later, including this one…

…she decided to share what she did have from the aborted album with fans. From what she noted at the time (and Live On Tomorrow – A Juliana Hatfield Fan Site recorded for posterity), “[t]he recordings were taken from an old cassette – the only version of these recordings that I have…the songs were recorded onto two-inch reel-to-reel tape and then most likely transferred to half-inch tape and then transferred onto a cassette for my listening pleasure and then that cassette ended up in the basement sitting in a paper bag full of cassettes and then years later (circa now) the cassette was transferred onto a CD.”

She also noted that “although I never finalized an official version and sequence of the album, some of you have heard versions of what people who made the songs available (not me) were calling God’s Foot. but, again, I never sanctioned the song choices. Since I knew the album was not ever scheduled for release, I never needed to finalize the song choices or mixes or the sequence.”

The download-only delight from 2014 was 320 kbps and sounds very good, with a minimum of hiss and no slo-mo warped interludes that sometimes happens with old cassettes. The songs possess an analog warmth, actually, and none of the brittle highs that marred many recordings during the mid-‘90s. I’d love to have the set on CD, LP or full-resolution FLAC/ALAC files, as I’m sure some sonic pleasures were lost when squeezing the songs into MP3s. 

To my ears, the God’s Foot demos harken back to the oft-sweet sounds of Hey Babe while foreshadowing the lushness of Beautiful Creature, in exile deo and How to Walk Away, with dollops of harder rock (“Get Over Me” and “Charity”) punctuating the set. Guitars are plentiful, vocals are upfront and, as on the aching “Don’t Need a Reason,” cushioned by down-soft backing vocals. The lyrics feature Juliana’s idiosyncratic takes on life and love. In the opening “How Would You Know,” for instance, she confesses that “I want you to see me/look into my soul/but how would you know/my eyes are closed….”

Why Atlantic Records rejected the songs is beyond me; if these 11 songs are any indication, the album was guaranteed to be one of the decade’s top discs; instead, it’s become one of the decade’s great lost sets. To lift another lyric from “Fade Away”:

In the rosy gloom of youth
Every moment has its truth
It’s gonna fade away…

Two songs did eventually surface on the now out-of-print Gold Stars 1992–2002: The Juliana Hatfield Collection: “Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away”; and a third, “I Didn’t Know,” was made available during Juliana’s honor-download experiment of 2006-07 (somewhere I have a few cancelled checks with her signature on the back). If there was any justice in this world, however, American Laundromat would partner with Atlantic and issue God’s Foot. But I’m not holding my breath.

The songs: 

British singer, songwriter and musician Joe Jackson began life on August 11, 1954, as David Ian Jackson, and it was as Dave that he began his musical journey. He first picked up a violin, but switched to piano and, in time, began playing in bars. He eventually earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music; from what I gather, his goal in life at that stage was to become the next Stravinsky or Sibelius.

Around the same time, he began gigging with a pub band from Portsmouth called Edward Bear that eventually rechristened itself Arms and Legs and released three singles that went nowhere fast. Those sides are an odd mix of the old and the new; the Mark Andrews-penned tunes are somewhat ripped from the charts, while Jackson’s combine a new wave sensibility with Steely Dan. 

For those interested, here’s a playlist that features those songs:

It was during those years that Dave exited stage left. As Jackson explained to Minnesota Public Radio‘s Jim McGuinn in early 2019, he became Joe because of “a British children’s TV character called Joe 90, who was a puppet character, and he was a teenage genius. Well, I don’t know what age he was supposed to be, but he wore these big glasses and he was kind of geeky and he knew how to make anti-gravity or whatever it was. Someone or other named me after him as a nickname, and it just kind of stuck.” There was also a Peanuts connection: “[T]here was a character called Joe Piano. So that got thrown at me too, and I just ended up being Joe. I thought it was better than Dave because there’s enough Daves.” In time, he said, he legally changed his name to Joe.

Something was happening in the world beyond the Royal Academy and pub rock: punk. He explained to McGuinn that “[w]hen you’re 22 years old and you’re in London and it’s the late ’70s and this stuff is happening and it’s exciting, then of course you’re going to be influenced by it, I think.”

Although Arms and Legs went the way of most bands, one important connection was made: bassist Graham Maby, who’s been a mainstay in Jackson’s world since. After a stint playing piano at the Portsmouth Playboy Club, where he accompanied cabaret singers, Jackson – with Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer David Haughton –  entered a studio and recorded a bunch of demos that scored him a deal with A&M.

Look Sharp! was the result. Released in the U.S. on January 5th, 1979, it was home to such classic songs as the title track, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.” This Washington Post article previewing a concert that September at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum is well worth the read; he relates his love of reggae and respect for Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, the Jam and “Class” (actually the Clash). “Rock ‘n’ roll in its very nature is about the joining of the races,” he says. “There would be no rock ‘n’ roll if there hadn’t been black music. I don’t see how you could be in a rock band and not be against racism. Every white person in a rock band is going to have two or three heroes who are black.”

Like most folks my age, the first song I heard by Jackson was “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The starkness of the music, the bass line and Jackson’s sneering delivery sounded fresh and unique in 1979 (and maybe it’s my age speaking, but it still sounds fresh and unique to me now). From there, Jackson’s career unfolded in an unlikely manner: new wave, reggae, swing and then the sophisticated, Cole Porter-styled pop of Night and Day, which was a surprise hit. Then came the off-kilter soundtrack for Mike’s Murder, which – due to the demands of the movie studio – was mostly replaced by a John Barry score. It doesn’t always jell, but when it does – such as on “Zemeo” and “Moonlight Theme” – it’s quite cool.

I share that backstory for no other reason than this: Body and Soul, which was released on March 14, 1984, is the culmination of everything that came before, integrating elements of new wave, pop, jazz and Latin. It features moody songs accented by sax solos that briefly brighten the dimly lit scenes, somewhat akin to a lone street lamp lighting an otherwise dark road. In that sense, the cover – which pays homage to Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, a classic jazz album on the famed Blue Note label, is something of a misdirection. This ain’t hard bop, but jazz-pop with a dash of noir.

Some people live so fast
They’re so scared of getting old
Some people keep on working 
All they do is line their graves with gold
We don”t know what happens when we die
We only know we die too soon
But we have to try or else our world becomes a waiting room

Those lines are from the opening track, “The Verdict,” which finds Jackson waiting for a phone call, quavering over critics and musing on life itself.

“Cha Cha Loco,” which follows, detours into salsa, while “Not Here, Not Now” finds him sifting through the embers of a relationship on its last legs. “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” which hit No. 15 on the U.S. pop charts as the album’s first single, condenses every self-help book into a swinging tune…

…and is followed by more apt advice in the upbeat “Go For It.”

As good as the first side is, however, it’s the second that, back in the day, I played more often than not. The instrumental “Loisaida” shimmers like moonlight reflecting off waves at night, with the brass soaring into the foreground only to recede like the tide, washing away everything but the piano’s lone notes. It’s hypnotic.

“Happy Ending,” a duet with Elaine Caswell, updates the boy-meets-girl love stories of yore to an ‘80s sensibility. (“It’s not so easy/It’s 84 now…”) Here they are on Top of the Pops:

Although many songs place the protagonist in a movie, or at least makes allusions to such, nothing plays out as Hollywood confections would lead us to believe. The bittersweet “Be My Number Two,” which follows the upbeat “Happy Ending,” is a great case in point: He’s settling not for love, but companionship – and assumes the gal is, too. “And every time I look at you/You’ll be who I want you to/And I’ll do what I can do/To make a dream or two come true.”

“Heart of Ice” caps the set in perfect noir fashion; in essence, he’s killing us softy with his song – and pleading to be released from the cynicism that’s taken root in his soul: “Take a knife/Cut out this heart of ice/Hold it high/Walk into the sun…”

Given the nature of the ‘80s pop world, the album did surprisingly well, reaching No. 20 in the U.S. and No. 14 in the U.K. I picked it up on cassette a few months after its release, on June 11th, after reading Rolling Stone’s fairly positive review as well as a so-so overview (“MTV for the ears”) in Record magazine that coupled it with the Mike’s Murder soundtrack. While the cinematic allusions in the music are obvious, there’s much more to be heard in the grooves than that.

This is music of the body and soul, wearied and rundown by life. It’s my most-played Joe Jackson album by far. Go figure.

Most music fans know (or should know) the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips. For those few who don’t: in 1952, at age 7, she appeared on (and won) Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour

…aka the American Idol of its day. Not long thereafter, she joined her brother Merald (aka “Bubba”), sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest in a music group dubbed the Pips after a cousin whose nickname was “Pip.” As the years pushed toward 1960, Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by Edward Patten and Langston George; and the group toured with, and opened for, such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. They also released their first single in 1958, “Whistle My Love,” which went nowhere fast; and, as Gladys Knight and the Pips, released the Johnny Otis-penned “Every Beat of My Heart,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. 

There were actually two versions of “Every Beat” – the one for Atlanta Huntom/Vee Jay that hit the top 10 and a re-recorded version for the Fury label that reached No. 45; Fury also released the group’s first full-length platter, Letter Full of Tears, in 1962. A string of near-hits followed and, in 1966, Gladys, Merald, William and Edward signed with Motown, where they’d remain until 1972. 

There’s far more to unpack, including a tumultuous personal life, but for the purposes of this piece I’ll skip everything save this: Gladys and the Pips were not seen as a top-tier act by Motown, which was home to such established hitmakers as the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Marvin Gaye. Add to that this: She was allegedly viewed as a threat by Diana Ross, who supposedly had Gladys and the guys dumped from their opening slot on a 1968 Supremes tour because they were too good (i.e. better than Diana and gals).

There were a slew of songs in that spell that could and should have been hits, but weren’t; and others that they would have done wonders with if given a chance. Yet, their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded after the Miracles and Marvin Gaye renditions but released first, reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1967; they also scored top 10 pop singles with “If I Were Your Woman” (No. 9 in 1970) and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (No. 2 in 1972); in the same timeframe, however, they scored 11 R&B top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. I.e., with a better marketing push, a song like the funky “Friendship Train” could have topped the pop charts.

As a result, with their contract up, Gladys and the Pips went shopping for a new home – and found one in Buddah Records, a small label that was home to an odd mix of bubblegum acts and soul music. As Ron Weisner, who was with Buddah at the time (and later served as Gladys’ manager) recounts in his memoir Listen Out Loud, they didn’t have as much to offer as other labels except for one thing: enthusiasm. So, for a lower advance than she might have gotten elsewhere, Gladys and the Pips signed the dotted line…

… and Imagination, one of the greatest albums of the early ‘70s, resulted. Because Buddah didn’t have in-house writers or producers, there was a freedom about the endeavor – and it’s heard in the album’s grooves. It merges soul, gospel and country, as evidenced by “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which began life as “Midnight Plane to Houston”) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – songs that circulate and percolate through the soul like few others.

There’s more to the album than those two tracks, however. “Storms of Troubled Times” – which, like “Midnight Train” and “Best Thing” was written by country singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly – is another highlight. Gladys’ vocals are cushioned by the Pips’ perfect harmonies.

When the world, when the world
Falls down around your shoulders
And you need a hand that’s strong and kind
Reach out for mine, reach out for mine
And I will lead you through the storms of troubled times

“Where Peaceful Waters Flow” is thematically similar to “Storms” and is no less stirring. Although she didn’t write the lyrics, it doesn’t much matter. When she sings, the words flow from her soul into ours.  

One surprising track is “I Can See Clearly Now,” an evocative cover of the Johnny Nash tune that features the Pips upfront. In fact, the only weak cut on the nine-song album is the last one, “Window Raisin’ Granny”; to my ears, it’s a so-so rewrite (by Gladys and the three Pips) of Bill Withers’ “Granny’s Hands.” Yet, even it has something to offer – a sterling vocal.

In the charts, Imagination did well – No. 9 on Billboard’s pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts – but could (and should) have done even better. 

My favorite song from the set may well be “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – and though I love the studio version, this rendition from a 1974 TV appearance (which I’ve spotlighted before) remains my favorite despite the lousy video quality…

… for a few reasons, but primarily because it reminds me of when Diane and I saw Gladys at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., in the early 1990s. Though much of the specifics of the concert have long been lost to time, the passion she invested in each song lingers still. She was a dynamic stage presence.

Incidentally, at that point, I only knew Gladys (with and without the Pips) from various greatest-hits collections and anthologies. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to explore her specific albums, including this one, which quickly became my favorite. That said, there are other LPs that folks who only know the hits should check out, including If I Were Your Woman (which, aside from the classic title track, includes a great version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) and Standing Ovation. I’ll be spotlighting a few of them in the weeks and months ahead.