Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered, passion palpable in each simmered note. 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 but the passing of her father 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 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 (and 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.

It’s odd the way the mind’s turntable works. 

Earlier this week, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews posted to her Instagram account that she “can’t wait to sing with humans in a room, that’s what I miss most.” For reasons only a mystic may know, that simple admission caused my inner turntable to queue up the “Someday We’ll Be Together” 45 by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua in 1961, and was first recorded and released that same year by Bristol and Beavers (as Johnny and Jackey) on the Tri-Phi label. That version, however, features little of the magic heard in Diana’s rendition…

… which, though billed as a “Diana Ross & the Supremes” song, was recorded with Merry Clayton, Patrice Holloway, Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Johnny Bristol, who joined the Motown fold in the mid-1960s, had worked up the track for Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but Berry Gordy decided it was better suited for Diana; at that stage, he earmarked it as her solo debut. He changed his mind after it was completed, however, and issued it instead as the final single from Diana Ross & the Supremes in order to help promote Diana’s departure from the group. Bristol’s vocal contributions, by the way, came about by accident: In an early take, the engineer accidentally recorded him while he was positioned off-mic singing along and offering words of encouragement to Diana. They liked the result, so kept it.

Released on October 14, 1969, it peaked at No. 1 on the pop charts for the week of December 27th, so is technically both the final No. 1 of the 1960s and first No. 1 of the 1970s. 

What’s wild about the song: Although written 59 years ago about love and regret (“Long time ago my, my sweet thing, I made a big mistake, honey/I say, I said goodbye”), it remains as relevant as ever – no more so than today, given that the pandemic is keeping loved ones apart: “I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say some day we’ll be together/Yes we will, yes we will say some day we’ll be together/Some day, some sweet day, we will be together…” 

The first song released under the Diana Ross & the Supremes moniker, “Reflections,” is a Holland-Dozier-Holland gem that, though about love, is also applicable to these times: “Through the mirror of my mind/Time after time/I see reflections of you and me/Reflections of/The way life used to be…”

Released on July 24th, 1967 (aka the Summer of Love), it rose to No. 2 on the charts by September 9th – and sports a soft (and somewhat dated) psychedelic sound due to the use of a test oscillator as part of its sonic makeup. Yet, it remains a great song – one of my favorites by Diana & Company.

(Both have been added to my list of songs Courtney Marie should cover – though I doubt she ever will.)

A year later, Diana and the Supremes released the Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a sales misstep – it peaked at No. 150 – that, yet, is eminently enjoyable. One highlight – and another song that could have been written about life during the COVID-19 pandemic – is “People.”

If you listened, you heard Diana’s heartfelt plea, which could well be spoken today: “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love/All the people have a dream/for peace, for security/let the world fall in love again/please, please, let our lives not be in vain…”

Another H-D-H classic, “My World Is Empty Without You,” released by the Supremes at the tail end of 1965, echoes modern life, as well:

Incidentally, its album home – I Hear a Symphony, which was released in early 1966 – is well worth many spins. The title cut is a classic, of course…

…and there’s also a touching cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Another highlight is their rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which had been a hit for the Righteous Brothers the year before:

Too often, songs of yesteryear are dismissed as relics from a bygone age – as if love, heartache and regret are modern conceits. Yeah, sure, the albums by the Supremes often include covers of then-popular hits, as well as Broadway favorites, but – to me, at least – that’s part of their charm. At their best, which is often, Diana Ross and the Supremes (both pre- and post-ampersand) simultaneously reflect and transcend their times, and remain as relevant and wonderful as ever.

There are a myriad of tributaries through time that twist together as if one, but each offers a distinct experience that depends upon many factors, such as one’s age, race and gender. The summer of 1967 is a good example. Anyone steeped in pop-culture history, and even some who aren’t, likely know it as the Summer of Love, when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and the Monterey Pop Festival took place (though, technically, Pepper and the festival both fell in the spring). People in another tributary, however, remember or know those same months as the “long, hot summer” when riots erupted in such urban centers as Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Newark, N.J.

Just days after the Detroit riot, which followed the one in Newark, N.J., President Johnson spoke to the nation about the unrest. He emphasized the need to stop the lawlessness, but also addressed the underlying issues that fed it: 

“The violence must be stopped, quickly, finally, and permanently. It would compound the tragedy, however, if we should settle for order that is imposed by the muzzle of a gun. In America, we seek more than the uneasy calm of martial law. We seek peace that is based on one man’s respect for another man – and upon mutual respect for law. We seek a public order that is built on steady progress in meeting the needs of all of our people. Not even the sternest police action, nor the most effective federal troops, can ever create lasting peace in our cities. The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack – mounted at every level – upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions – not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”

LBJ’s flawed presidency was derailed the following year, of course, by events in one of that era’s other tributaries, the Vietnam War. Although promises made by one president are often broken by the next, in the decades since we’ve seemed headed in the right direction – despite stumbles, of which they’ve been too many. (As Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Thomas Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) 

As 2019 faded to a close, I often referred to 2020 as “the year of visual acuity.” I assumed that we, as a people, would visit a figurative ophthalmologist and leave with new specs that granted us better vision – not just of the present, but of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

American is burning. Again. Let us respond to it, now, and prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.

When I moved this blog to WordPress in the summer of 2014, I decided to go with a tag line that would instantly identify what it was about: “…on music, memories & other stuff.” It sums up my intent rather well, I think. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I borrowed the “music and memories” portion from one of my favorite Jackie DeShannon songs, “Music and Memories,” which can be found on her oft-overlooked 1966 Are You Ready for This? LP.

As a whole, the album conjures the mid-’60s to a T, which is part of its charm, mixing elements of blue-eyed soul with Motown and the era’s mainstream pop. Think Dusty Springfield, the Supremes and Petula Clark rolled into one. The DeShannon-penned title track, for instance, would likely have been a smash hit if sung by Diana Ross and Co.:

And “Windows and Doors,” one of several Bacharach-David songs (and one of two tracks produced by Bacharach), has a melody that can’t be beat and a quaint ‘60s philosophical quotient: “True love is something you can’t buy in stores.”

In a sense, the album replicates her career to date, as she’d recorded in a variety of styles since signing with Liberty Records in 1960. As on Are You Ready for This?, some of those songs were self-penned, others not. It didn’t matter. Either/or, she invested her soul in them. Check out “To Be Myself,” one of the four songs on the album she wrote:

These days, the Kentucky-born DeShannon is probably best known for her rendition of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic “What the World Needs Now” (1965) and her own “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (1969). She also opened for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour in 1964, starred in a few movies… and wrote some memorable hits for others, including Marianne Faithfull’s “Come and Stay With Me” (which was also covered by Cher) and the classic Searchers tune “When You Walk Into a Room.” (If my snapshot summary piques your interest, check out Wikipedia’s much more thorough bio.)

The self-penned “Find Me Love,” which closes the original album, is wondrous and revealing, and blends love with music in the best way possible: “You’re just like the melody/That stays within my mind/Some you’ll take along with you/Some you’ll leave behind…”

Her vocals, at various points, are sweet, gritty and longing; and the songs are all top-notch. The album’s a true treasure from another era, in other words, and one no doubt lost in its time due to DeShannon’s gender. A true shame. It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but I’d add this to that well-worn axiom: Those who don’t know music history are denied great sounds. This is one of those cases.

Give it a go on Apple Music, Spotify or, courtesy of YouTube, right here:

Here’s the original track list:

(A 2005 reissue, which I’ve embedded for as long as YouTube allows above, added eight bonus songs, mostly singles from the same time period, including the aforementioned “What the World Needs Now.”)