Sad news: rocksteady great (and one of the finest crafters of reggae soul) Alton Ellis passed away recently. I was a late-comer to his magic but I’ve been beguiled by it ever since. His catalog is massive but I’ve always had an ear for his stuff from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Here’s three of my favorite. Jah bless.
I recorded this mix for Dublab.com back in June and is now available on their website archive. I originally created it as a promo mix for Deep Covers 2 (though the timing was off since Dublab was back-logged over the summer). Still, I put in a nice selection of different cover songs here – some you’ve heard, some you haven’t. Here’s the tracklisting:
Simply Red – I Know You Got Soul – You’ve Got It – WEA
James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart – Soul On Top – King
Jimmy McGriff – Ain’t It Funky Now – SOul Sugar – Groove Merchant
Bo Diddley – Bad Side of the Moon – Another Dimension – Chess
The Gimmicks – California Soul – Em Las Brisas – Swedisc
Klaus Wunderlich – Summertime – Hammond Fur Millionen – Telefunken
The Professionals – Theme From Godfather – On Tour – CES
Dutch Rhythm Steel and Show Band – Down By the River – Soul, Steel and Show – Negram
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires – Express Yourself – Reggay Splashdown! – Dynamic
Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – Movin’ On Up – Live at the Haunted House – Rhino Handmade
Sorry to have been away for a while – my thanks to the Captain’s Crates crew for holding it down.
I’ve been on award tour, starting last week at Duke University where I gave a pair of talks in conjunction with their Transcultural Humanities project. It was a great opportunity to talk about my work but the real enjoyment was spending some time, rapping with Mark Anthony Neal who brought me out there. He put me up on this stunning Max Roach/JC White Singers song but I’m still trying to track it down so that’ll have to wait. CONTINUE READING…
I did catch an equally compelling exhibit at the Nasher, an impressive, first-ever retrospective of Barkely Hendricks’ paintings. Hendricks has flown under the radar for decades but hopefully, this show – which will travel to the Studio Museum in Harlem and then the Santa Monica Museum of Art – will rectify that situation. His works from the ’60s, in particular, are such beautiful snapshots of the time, both in terms of the cultural signifiers and the personalities that he captures in them. Here’s a personal favorite, “Tuff Tony”:
Folks might be more familiar with this more recent painting of Fela:
If you’re in Durham…or New York in the fall (or Santa Monica next spring, or Philly after that), I highly recommend you see his work. Soul inspired, for real. Shout out to Trevor Schoonmaker for having the foresight and resources to put this retrospective together. Here’s a video preview he helped put together for the Nasher:
After Duke, I came home for all of 12 hours then had to fly out again for the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. I. Love. This. Conference. Which is probably something only an academic would ever say, but f— it. I have no shame in my appreciation for the conf (as noted in the past). I’m not going to do a complete run-down but I’ll say this much: the conf does much to both inspire me intellectually as well as turn me onto new music/ideas/people. Here’s a quick scattering, perhaps a follow-up post later.
1) Jeffrey Govan: This bassist in the LA ska scene is also now a grad student at USC’s American Ethnic Studies program. He gave on paper on the Latin influence on ska back in the 1960s (and influence that has been remarkably cataloged here. Apart from introducing me to the Skatalites’ “Latin Goes Ska” (a flip on Perez Prado), I was most thankful for Govan putting all of us onto this:
Tommy McCook and the Skatalites: Sauvitt From 7″ (Dodd, 1964). Also available on Tribute to Tommy.
It’s a cover of a Mongo Santamaria song (“Sauvito”) and the subtle intertwining of ska and Latin rhythms here are simply delicious. I love how the song opens with that piano, how the horns come in and layer themselves, and my favorite moment comes right before the two bridges with the four note horn hits – wish they had made that into an entire chorus. Great song – a new favorite.
2) Lauren Onkey: This professor at Ball State Univ. is doing fascinating research on the undersung Black rock and doo-wop bands who were part of the Mersey Beat scene in Liverpool circa the 1950s/60s. Onkey was drawn to this research given how, in most of the literature she had seen on Liverpool’s music scene and the Beatles, rarely were any of the city’s numerous Black bands ever acknowledged even though groups like the Fab 4 played with them and, according to some rumors, learned their R&B-styled chops from them. Onkey also makes the very provocative argument that Liverpool’s historical Black population (dating back centuries to the city’s prominence as the slaving port in Great Britian) is one reason why the blues fetishism that hit other British bands like the Rolling Stones or Cream bypassed Liverpool groups – they had grown up with Black people and thus, weren’t as likely to romanticize/nostalgize them through the blues.
In any case, during her talk, she played this clip by the Liverpool doo-wop group, The Chants, who worked with the Beatles early on before they really became “The Beatles.” Here they are, covering the jazz standard, “I Could Write a Book.”
3) Gayle Wald: I last mentioned Gayle a year ago, in connection to her book on Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Gayle’s now working on researching the life and times of the late Ellis Haizlip, a remarkable artistic force in New York, who, among other things, hosted the PBS show, Soul!. It’s hard to quite capture how remarkable a show this was – in the late ’60s through early ’70s, it was an incredible meeting point of different Black artists, musicians, politicians, etc. in ways that have never really been duplicated since (no, not even by Arsenio).
The problem is that this show will likely never, ever be released to the public on DVD or any other format – the release contracts signed at the time make such a occurrence logistically impossible for all practical purposes. It’s a damn shame – the clips that Gayle brought included a mind-melting interview between Haizlip and Farrakhan talking about gay sex, Ashford and Simpson performing on one of the last Soul! shows and – coincidentally enough – Max Roach w/ the JC White Singers.
Luckily (however illegally), clips have snuck out, including this 1973 performance by the Spinners on the show.
4) Last but not least, one of the other people on my panel (besides Gayle) was EMP organizer and fellow L.A. partner-in-culinary-crime Eric Weisbard who did a paper on Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” – a song that most everyone (I presume) has heard but may not remember being a big hit on not just the pop charts, but also the R&B charts. Don’t believe it? Just ask Mary. Or the Diabolical:
Biz Markie: Sounds of Silence (by the Beastie Boys) (Capitol, 1999)
For real though, listening to that version isn’t half as fun as watching it:
Two bits of personal trivia. 1) I have never, in the 15 years I’ve been a DJ, DJed a wedding. The reasons are partly logistical (I don’t own speakers, lights or an amp), mostly personal (I’ve heard enough groom/bride-zilla stories to want to steer clear). In fact, at my own wedding, we didn’t even have music, something that surprised many of my friends but seriously, it never occurred to me (note: our wedding was a potluck in a friend’s backyard so “low-key” would be an understatement).
This all changed last Saturday night when I agreed to DJ a friend-of-a-friend’s wedding in Los Angeles. It was a very, very nice affair, held at the Skirball Center, not too far up the 405 from where I live. In some ways, it was a little conventional: the requested playlist included such wedding favorites as “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night and Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and I even had some ABBA ready to go (though never did around to playing it). I also got to drop in a few songs of my own choosing though I tried not to wild out too far – this wasn’t a Boogaloo gig after all.
It did get me to thinking about wedding songs and brought me back to this older post. People should definitely check out the comments for dozens of great wedding song suggestions. CONTINUE READING…
Pamoja: Ooh Baby From 7″ (Keiper, 1970)
Bettye Swann: Make Me Yours From 7″ (Money, 1967). Also on S/T.
For me, I was reminded by how great “Ooh Baby” by Pamoja is (so I re-upped it) and I also thought about this special, wedding 7″ that my friend and former DJ partner Vinnie Esparza created for his wedding a couple years back: “Make Me Yours” by Bettye Swann, one of the absolute gems from this Louisana soulstress (and a #1 R&B hit back in ’67). I love the idea of a custom 45…makes me wish I had thought of that for my own wedding but oh well, maybe for the 10th anniversary.
John Coltrane: Body and Soul From Body and Soul (Atlantic, 1960). Also on Coltrane’s Sound.
From Saturday’s wedding, I’m including one of the songs I played during dinner (yes, O-Dub does dinner jazz), “Body and Soul” by John Coltrane, featuring the majestic McCoy Tyner on piano, dropping an opening riff for the ages. I didn’t realize this, but when “Body and Soul” originally appeared as a song in the musical Three’s a Crowd in 1930, it was treated as too suggestive and banned from radio for a year. This is a beautiful rendition, like most of Coltrane’s ballads from his Atlantic and Impulse years. The song just moves you.
Lastly, one song I didn’t play but would love to at someone’s wedding (apparently, I’m now for hire; holler): “I’m Still In Love With You,” by Alton Ellis. This is NOT a cover of the Al Green song but rather, an original (I believe) by the prolific Jamaican innovator of rocksteady. Beautiful, beautiful tune and a classic riddim once Althea and Donna got their hands on it.
Little Beaver: Let the Good Times Roll From Party Down (Cat, 1974)
Betty Wright: Tonight Is the Night From Danger – High Voltage (Alston, 1974)
My sister-in-law is starting a dance class and is looking for suggestions for suitable music. To be more specific, she’s looking for: “”songs that make you feel like getting your groove on. Sexy slow uptempo or mid tempo, it’s all good we’re just asking for some ideas of what makes you feel sexy.” I’ve thrown some suggestions her way but I figured I could gather a few from the Soul Sides crowd.
Here are two songs that came to mind for me:
“Let’s Get It On” is practically de rigeur under these conditions but I thought I’d offer up the song with a twist – a really nice reggae cover by Lloyd Charmers that does a nice job of working off the original without straying too far. It’s not better than Gaye’s original – nothing ever could be – but it’s a cool twist on a familiar classic.
The Little Beaver song is something I’ve been meaning to post for a long time but as part of a Little Beaver post…I still haven’t gotten around to that (obviously) but this seemed like a good opportunity to pull out this, one of my favorite songs by one of Miami’s finest. I love how the song hits this perfect balance as a soulful funk tune (or funky soul tune) with an irresistible rhythm that, for me at least, always seems to inspire a scrunched scowl that says, “oh yeah baby.” You know what I mean.
Last song is the original version of Betty Wright’s hit “Tonight Is the Night.” Most folks are familiar with her live version and strangely, it’s very hard to find her first version on CD. I can see why the live version is more celebrated but I’ve always liked this studio take too – it’s more mellow, a bit more slick (vs. the rawness of the live one) but still has that familiar melody and hook that people know so well. That plus, c’mon – it’s just about the best song ever written about losing one’s virginity (albeit, no one’s first time likely goes this groovy).
What sexy jams would you suggest for my sister-in-law’s class?
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires: My Sweet Lord From Reggay Splashdown (Dynamic, 1971)
The Troubadours: My Sweet Lord From Breakthrough (Hilary, 1972)
It’s no secret that I – love – covers. At times, I wonder if that means I don’t appreciate original compositions as much but it really just comes down to the surprise-factor in hearing a familiar song done in a new, interesting way. (At some point, yes, I will definitely try to bring back my CD, Deep Covers, back into production.)
I’ve had this Byron Lee for several years now – it is a great LP, especially since it has this song plus a cover of “Express Yourself” which is ace. I especially love it when reggae/rocksteady artists cover soul and rock songs: the reggae rhythm often complements the original style very well and what Byron Lee and the Dragonaires do to George Harrison’s sublime “My Sweet Love” is just phenomenal in really bring out the soulful qualities. I played this the other night at the record release party for Soul Sides Vol 1, towards the very end of the evening, and it felt like a great way to help close things out.
The Troubadours version is very new to my collection: I just got it less than 10 days ago and when I heard it, it was an instant impulse buy. This is more uptempo, “groovier” than Lee’s version but it’s an equally interesting and, to me, compelling take on the Harrison original. I can’t even really choose between this and the Lee to argue which one I like better: they’re different approaches and both appeal to me. I think that, more than anything, is a testament to the late Harrison and the beauty of his songwriting (which goes far too overlooked compared to the Paul/John debates).
Charles May and Annette May Thomas: I’ll Keep My Baby Warm
From 7″ (Gospel Truth, 1973)
?: No One But the Lord
From LP (197?)
We admit: Soul Sides is not that up on our gospel but we managed to dig out two favorites that have long been in rotation ’round here. The first comes from Los Angeles’ Charles May and Annette May Thomas who recorded for the Stax-subsidary label, Gospel Truth. I can’t say enough about “Keep My Baby Warm,” which is just so damn soulful that it’s easy to forget that the allegory here might well be that “baby = Jesus” (at least that’s how I read it). You don’t really need to know that context though – like many gospel songs of the ’70s, it works in both secular and religious contexts.
Sorry for the secrecy but the second song, “No One But the Lord,” needs to remain in incognito status, at least for now (there’s enough heads out there who already know about this Bay Area gospel album in any case). Again, this is so funky that if not for the obvious Christian-inspired hook, this could pass for just a solid soul song. In fact, just change “the Lord” to “my man” and you can see what I mean.
Dennis Brown: Things In Life
From Hold Tight (Live & Learn, 1986). Also available on Money In My Pocket.
Faye Wong: Dream Person
From Random Thinking (?, 1994). Also available on Chungking Express Soundtrack (?, 2003)
For as much praise as Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai gets for his visual imagination, WKW also showcases a superb taste in music. I was tempted to combine today’s post with music from In the Mood For Love but I’m just going to stick to this pair from his Chungking Express. If you’ve never seen it – dudes and dudettes: walk thee to a video store (or Netflix) and rent that shit. You won’t be sorry (though you may never want to eat a can of pineapples again).
For those who haven’t seen it, the film is split into two distinct vignettes, the first involving Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigette Lin…and at least two, three times, there is a bar scene where Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” is playing on the jukebox. This song is so damn infectious: after I played it once, my g.f. Sharon began to singing the first line over and over, almost unconsciously. One of the best songs ever.
In the second vignette, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Faye Wong’s lives intersect and at the very end of the film, Wong’s “Dream Person,” a cover of the Cranberries’ big hit, “Dreams,” comes on. The moment where it drops in is perfect: there is something so ebullient about this song – even if you don’t understand Wong’s lyrics in Chinese, the feel and spirit just nails down the emotion invoked at the film’s end.
Donovan Carless: Be Thankful For What You Got From 7″ (Impact, 1972)
Jack Willkins: Red Clay From Windows (Mainstream, 1973)
A pair of covers today. The first is Donovan Carless’ beautiful reggae version of William DeVaughn’s soul classic “Be Thankful For What You Got.” Plugola: this is off my Deep Covers CD (cop it!) but I’m sharing it with ya’ll because it’s just so sublime. Loooooove this song and this version of it.
Second is guitarist Jack Wilkins take on Freddie Hubbard’s hit “Red Clay,” taken from Wilkins’ strangely scarce Windows album on Mainstream. I’ve always liked this Hubbard tune – the bassline is so memorable and funky in an understated way. Wilkins is pretty loyal actually…at some later point, I’ll have to remember to post up Mark Murphy’s vocalese version of “Red Clay.” For now, hope you all enjoy these two songs.