Archive for the ‘The Essentials’ Category

1970 is likely remembered, at least within the U.S., for what came to be called the Kent State massacre. On May 4th, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on college students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, killing four and wounding nine. It spurred an in-progress student strike at some 450 college campuses – which had begun on May 1st, the day after President Nixon announced the expansion – to explode. What had been a primarily peaceful movement flirted with violence, especially when 100,000 anti-war activists descended upon Washington, D.C., the following weekend. The anger was real and can be heard in the ardent strains of CSNY’s “Ohio.”

A month and change later, on June 19th, Diana Ross released her eponymous solo debut, which sports a soulful pop sheen that may seem miles removed from the revolution brewing on college campuses. But, at least from where I sit, it was – in its own way – revolutionary all the same: “Reach out and touch/Somebody’s hand/Make this world a better place/If you can…”

Working with writer-producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for all but one of the 11 tracks, she crafts a set that both reflects and transcends its time. Some songs, such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” were recycled from other Motown artists; others are original to the album. No matter. By the time the tracks were set to wax, they were hers. It’s not a statement of purpose, but a declaration.

Of course, most everyone knows the basic outline of Diana’s story: Born in Detroit, her name was and is Diane everywhere but her birth certificate, where it was listed as “Diana” by mistake. At age 7, her father relocated the family to Alabama after her mother was felled by illness, but they returned to the Motor City in 1958, when she was 14. At that point, her dream was to become a fashion designer – but she was also flirting with music and soon joined the Primettes, whose other members included Florence Ballard and, in time, Mary Wilson.

In 1960, Ross convinced childhood neighbor Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition for the group with Motown; Berry Gordy liked what he heard but, after learning their ages, told them to finish school first. They signed with another label instead, released a single that went nowhere, and then began to hang out at Hitsville, doing this ’n’ that (aka backing vocals and handclaps) before, in 1961, officially joining the fold. Rechristened the Supremes, they languished at the bottom of Motown’s hierarchy until late 1964, when “Where Did Our Love Go” topped the pop charts – the first of 11 singles to do so. Intra-group (and intra-label, for that matter) tensions soon surfaced due to Berry Gordy’s infatuation with Ross, however, especially once he decided to do what it took to make her a star.

As I noted a while back, the final No. 1 single by Ross and the Supremes, the Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was originally slated to be Diana’s debut single – and was actually recorded without the other Supremes. Its success, along with the ad-hoc Cream of the Crop album, pushed plans for her solo debut to the following year (plus gave Gordy more opportunities to milk money from her exit, including the live Farewell double-LP set that was released in January 1970.)

By the time of her solo debut, she was 26 – and, yet, still deemed a “girl” by legendary Hollywood hack writer Leo Guild in a 1970 newspaper series that spotlighted (I’m not making this up) “black beauties.” (One excerpt from the article about her: “She has a peculiar ambition in that she wants the general public not to think that she’s a symbol for the blacks. She wants them to accept her as just a groovy girl.” She’s also quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody needs a sex symbol. That’s out of date. I’d rather be thought of as someone with brains and maybe have a little sex appeal in back of them.”) It wasn’t just the mainstream press that could be so callous, either; Rolling Stone wasn’t exactly a bastion of feminist thought and pretty much ignored artists of color. Part of that was the era, of course, but – to my ears, at least – it’s the casual affront to those attitudes that gives her debut its revolutionary zeal.

Although it’s probably best known as the original album home of two of her classic singles – “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – it’s not a stereotypical singles-and-filler Motown album. Over the course of the 11 tracks, she’s independent, affectionate, confident and aware. Something’s on her mind, in other words, that’s been troubling her a long, long time…

Did I mention that, vocally speaking, she’s at the top of her game? Although I dispute the assessment, it’s sometimes said of her work with the Supremes that her vocals are light and frothy, essentially the frosting atop a layered cake. There’s none of that here. Her vocals are full and developed, driving the lyrics instead of riding them. You hear her smile, hear her frown. She pulls you into her world.

If you haven’t heard the album, definitely check it out. It sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1970 and is a true essential album – alongside her 1976 eponymous and 1980 Diana albums. (The 2002 “deluxe version,” I should mention, adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including two Laura Nyro songs that stem from unreleased sessions with 5th Dimension producer Bones Howe, and is available on all the usual streaming services.)

The track listing:

And for those curious: Here’s the newspaper article referenced above… if nothing else, it shows how far we have come in the past 50+ years. (Each section can be clicked on to enlarge; it was too lengthy to fit into one, unfortunately, so you’ll have to hop between the two images.)

Throughout the 1960s, many Motown albums followed a predictable pattern: a few hits (or would-be hits), songs made popular by other artists and, depending on the singer or group, a show tune or two. The formula wasn’t unique to Hitsville, U.S.A. – most of the era’s popular acts, including the Beatles on their early albums, adhered to it. Everyone, or almost everyone, sang other people’s songs – until they didn’t. Within the world of rock music, then just over a decade old, the shift began with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP, which arrived just in time for Christmas 1965. Suddenly, the idea that an album could be an artistic statement took hold and cover songs became the exception, not the rule.

That said, and forgive this indulgence, the Fabs and their contemporaries weren’t the first to see the possibilities inherent in the LP, which was introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records. Self-proclaimed saloon singer Frank Sinatra released the 10-inch Songs for Young Lovers LP in 1954; the eight songs, all recorded for the project, sported a unified theme. He followed it later that year with Swing Easy!, another 10-inch set, and then released the classic In the Wee Small Hours, a 12-inch LP often credited as the first concept album, in 1955. Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t alone, either – jazz artists and other performers released sets that were more than just their latest single(s) and filler.

Not that any of that matters when it comes to Silk N’ Soul. It’s simply evidence that, by 1968, pop-oriented Motown had yet to follow the route laid down by the Beatles and other mainstream acts, preferring the old-school, supper-club approach instead. It also serves to show how Gladys Knight & the Pips were treated within Hitsville at the time. Although they were fresh off of a No. 2 hit with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a Top 20 hit with “The End of Our Road,” there are no original songs. Instead, the 12 tracks were known quantities at the time of the album’s release – and “I Wish It Would Rain,” the LP’s lone single, was a recent hit by the Temptations.

In a sense, it’s almost as if they were being punished for their success. It’s been well-documented, after all, that Diana Ross’ petty jealousies caused Gladys and the Pips to be ditched from a tour with the Supremes, as she feared they were too good. (As she told Gladys years later, “We all had to grow up.”) Was Berry Gordy trying to sabotage their careers?

Well, if he was, it doesn’t much matter. Gladys and the Pips, simply put, are at the top of their game throughout the album’s 12 tracks, with Glady becoming one with the songs when she sings. She’s similar to Elvis and Aretha, among others, in that every song she sings becomes hers in the moment.

Available on the usual streaming suspects, including YouTube, Silk N’ Soul is a thoroughly enjoyable album. No, it’ll never make anyone’s Top 10 list (nor should it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile listen. It’s a glimpse of the way life used to be. Pull it up, press play and let the music cleanse the soul. You won’t regret it. 

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and her passion 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: