Five years ago, I was trained in a digital humanities platform known as Scalar. Among the things you can do with it is to annotate media files so that the annotations effectively pop-up during the playback. I thought this was an incredibly cool tool and at the time, I used it to create three “breakdown” posts and invited some friends to comment:
And then, like many new tools I get into, I ramp up quick…and then end up ghosting away from it. With Scalar though, I recently decided that such a fun and useful tool is revisiting and as I’ve been listening the ____ out of The Impressions lately, what better way to try to dissect that obsession by dissecting one of their songs.
At random times, I’ll just start singing to myself, “I’ve been trying…lord knows that I’ve been trying.” Don’t ask me why; that’s how ear worms work sometimes but it reminds me of how The Impressions could craft these simple but incredibly memorable lyrics out of just a few words, especially in the mid’60s with hits like “People Get Ready,” “Keep On Pushing,” and of course, “I’ve Been Trying.”
Every time I listen to this, I marvel at how unadorned it is. The guitar and horns are kept to a minimum and the drums are so subtle, they’re practically invisible. Even the vocals are relatively restrained, almost matter-of-factly in tone. I’d like to think it’s because the singers are trying to capture an emotion somewhere between despair and hope and in order to resolve that, you end up in the flat middle. Whichever way, the affect is haunting.
(I think the sparseness of the original is one reason I have a hard time getting into most of the covers of the song. Most of them sound overproduced to me, including versions by The Notations, Jerry Butler and Clarence Reid. Better would be Archie Bell’s flip, which adds some heavier brass but otherwise keeps it faithful. Likewise, my friend Sam turned me onto the Mayfield Singers’ version which, as you might expect, is also very loyal.)
The first 30 seconds of this song are damn near perfect.
There are some songs which ostensibly claim “I don’t need you anymore” but really, it’s all a fake out. Those singers are lying to themselves – they still do need the inconstant object of their affection, they just can’t bring themselves to fully admit it so they sing us the lie instead.
But Willie? He is done. Gone. Vamoose. 5000.
His first two lines – the inflection in his tone, the bottomless pit of pathos they suggest – leave little room for confusion. You almost don’t even need the rest of the song because nothing else in it will convey Harper’s sentiments as effectively. This love affair is over.
(Shout out to the great Wardell Quezergue, aka “Big Q” for the magnificent production on this)
Patti Jo was a teenager from Nashville when Curtis Mayfield first discovered her circa 1972.1 At this point, Mayfield had already left The Impressions to embark on his solo career and manage his label, Curtom. It’s unknown why Mayfield didn’t sign Jo directly to Curtom but instead, she ended up recording with New York’s Scepter and its subsidiary, Wand.
Jo’s first single came out in ’72: “Ain’t No Love Lost/Stay Away From Me.” However, it would be her next single, “Make Me Believe In You,” in 1973 that would help immortalize her (with some help from Tom Moulton). Mayfield both wrote and produced the song (and his frequently collaborated, Rich Tufo, arranged it) and it’s worth noting how the string arrangements and steady backbeat are such mainstays of disco’s conventions but this was cut half a decade before disco’s mainstream dominance.2
The single was a minor hit but its true ascension into the disco canon came two years later when pioneering remix guru, Tom Moulton, was given access to a slew of Scepter songs to help produce the Disco Gold compilation of 1975.
Mouton’s remix is a masterpiece of extending a song’s best elements without radically altering it. The biggest change he makes, right off the bat, is taking the original’s 12 bar intro and extending it six-fold. That instrumental build, which takes up the first 2/5ths of the entire song, folds in different elements from other parts of the song and it’s a masterful slow-burn build where the listener – and really, dancer – already has undergone a journey of sorts before Patti Jo’s vocals even enter the picture.
Moulton also stripped down the tracks behind the first vocal verse. If you go back to the original, Mayfield brings in strings almost immediately but Moulton muted those stems in favor of just the drums, bass line and light flute track. He waits instead to bring in the full string arrangement on the hook, which feels like a reward for the listener/dancer’s patience. From here on out, he adds more layers back into the mix as well as extends the song’s bridge in what we now would think of as a conventional disco edit fashion. All in the all, an unqualified classic remix of the era.
Notably, Mayfield himself recorded a version of the song for his 1974 album, Sweet Exorcist. Melba Moore also covered the song in 1976 on This Is it, with a take that songs like it was definitely influenced by the Moulton remix rather than strictly the original. Both versions sound less…urgent than Jo’s original, partially because neither has as strong of a back beat. In 2007, Amerie covered the song – rather loyally – on her 2007 album Because I Love It and I don’t think it’s harsh to say that it’s not exactly essential.
As I mentioned in that first footnote…it’s surprising how difficult it is to find much information on Patti Jo herself. After those first two singles, she disappeared from the scene and then came back, years, later, to record a couple of new songs but I’ve yet to find a single interview with her available anywhere on the interwebs. If someone knows something I don’t, holler.
It’s shockingly difficult to find anything about Jo’s history and what I managed to patch together was taken from a number of internet forums so take all this with a grain of salt. ↩
My point being: disco was never, ever a flash in the pan. It built and bubbled up over the course of the entirety of the 1970s. ↩
I was very pleasantly surprised to see this morning that Light in the Attic announced the release of Betty Davis’s long-buried Columbia recordings from 1968 and ’69. I’ve known this release was coming but was asked to keep it under wraps and to be honest, I forgot it was even due out this week until I read this morning’s press release. It’s hard to overstate how excited people – myself especially! – am about this. For years, we were told the Columbia songs were off limits and that there was a snowball’s chance in hell that anyone would officially be allowed to listen to them. Well, apparently the mercury fell in Hades recently.
Betty Davis, then still Betty Mabry, was already putting together a career for herself in the mid-1960s. She recorded an early and rather forgettable Northern track, “Get Ready For Betty” in 1964 and duet-ed with Roy Arlington on a different single sometime in that same era, “I’ll Be There.” In 1967, she wrote “Uptown” for the Chambers Brothers and soon thereafter briefly became involved with Hugh Masekela, right around when he was blowing up on the strength of “Grazing In the Grass.”
For all these reasons, she caught the attention of folks at Columbia Records who, in 1968, released her second solo single (still as Betty Mabry): “It’s My Life” b/w “Live, Love, Learn,” both songs arranged by Masekela. Almost immediately after her breakup with Masekela, her and Miles Davis became involved in a whirlwind relationship that saw them dating, married and divorced in barely a year.
During that time, Miles agreed to help produce a handful of demo songs for Betty (along with Ted Macero) and in the spring of 1969, they entered the 52nd St. Studios of Columbia, along with seasoned players like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, to record the songs for the session.
So these are demos?
More or less, yes but demo songs recorded at one of the best studios in the country, produced by some of the most important jazz artists in history so they sound a bit better than something whipped together in someone’s garage.
What songs were recorded then?
It was split between a couple of covers, including a sizzling version of Cream’s “Politician Man” and a trio of Mabry originals. I suspect fans of her later funk output from 1973 onward will gravitate to “Down Home Girl,” which pays tribute to both her gutbucket roots as well as a not-so-coy celebration of her sexuality, which would later become a key part of her iconic personality. I think it’s important to note here that on the vast majority of the songs she recorded for Columbia, she held sole writing credit. Betty worked with incredible, important collaborators but creatively, she was always her own person.
What happened to the songs?
Miles tried to shop a deal for Betty with them but didn’t find much traction. Columbia passed and apparently, so did Atlantic. You have to remember that especially in 1969, there wasn’t a bounty of Black female solo artists releasing albums in a funk/rock vein. And to be sure, almost none of these songs were as good as what she’d recorded later. By the time Betty released her eponymous debut on Just Sunshine in 1973, she’d taken a huge leap forward, musically speaking. In any case, the tapes ended up back in the vaults at Columbia.
No one ever thought to release them in some fashion?
Oh, people tried. Fans of Betty have known about these recordings for years and countless people approached Columbia about the possibility of releasing the songs. Now, everything I’ve heard about this is second-hand so take it with a grain of salt but my understanding is that even as there was all this renewed interest in Betty over the past 10+ years, the folks who controlled the Columbia tapes – which could have been folks at the label or people connected with Miles’s estate, it’s not clear to me – had no desire to let them out.
There were a few pirated rips out there; I heard one of the takes of “Politician Man,” years ago and there was always some rumor that so-and-so had the “full album” but I don’t think there was ever an album’s worth of songs since these were really demo tracks as noted earlier. Regardless, I always assumed that if these songs ever saw the light of day, it would be through some kind of bootleg.
What happened instead?
Great question. I don’t know but I assume the folks at Light In the Attic, who’ve taken the lead of reissuing Betty’s music, managed to finally convince the right people to let them do a proper release for them. And thank god they did!
I’ve been listening to The Impressions’ This Is My Country/Young Mod’s Forgotten Story a ton the last few weeks. Though recorded as separate LPs, I always just lump them into one since they’re so similar in theme and feel that they just feel like a single album that happened to be released in two installments. What I especially love about this faux-double album is that my favorite song off of it keeps changing every few weeks. Right now, it’s “My Deceiving Heart,” but at one point, it was “Seven Years.”
First of all, here’s the original version in stereo:
On some level, I must have realized the song was recorded with some purposeful panning but it wasn’t until I was listening to it again recently, with one ear bud out, that I realized how separated the left and right channels were from one another. Here’s the right channel, mixed down into mono:
The most prominent element here are the lead vocals by Mayfield, with the occasional back-up accent (but not the doo-wop vocals which are exclusively in the left channel). I also hear the the piano which I think are mostly in the right as well. What’s also prominently missing: the horns (though you can hear their ghostly presence in the background). Those can all be found in the left channel:
Here are those horns, loud and clear, along with The Impressions’ smooth croons, the rhythm guitar, the vibes, and possibly one or two other elements (tuba?). Musically, this sounds more like the final mix than the right channel version but without Mayfield’s vocals, it feels like an instrumental version…something that you might have found on the flip of the single’s 45 release.
All said, I prefer the final, full stereo version. 😉
I’ve been busy the past month with all kinds of writing assignments and that’s slowed me down from posting here but thought I’d share a few pieces I published since it’s all very much Soul Sides-inspired/related: