Saturday, March 06, 2010

posted by O.W.

This one really bums me out. Such a pioneering guy in the history of Chicano rock/jazz/soul. Wish I had gotten the chance to talk to him before he passed at only 60.

Felix Contreras has a great memorial piece up at NPR about him.

Here's a 2009 interview with him by Jesus Velo of Los Illegals.

And here's a killer clip of El Chicano performing their big hit, "Viva Tirado" from 1971:

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

posted by O.W.

Banks is the middle man, literally

I'd be remiss in not noting the sad passing of the Dramatics' Ron Banks. At this point, most of the original founders have all died in the last ten years and I don't think a single one of them made it 60.

I don't have a long post to write here - I can't say I really knew the Dramatics' catalog as deeply as that of other groups though obviously, I'm up on their big hits. I did find it fascinating that they were a Detroit group yet signed to the star of the South: Stax/Volt. Wonder if Gordy ever got pissed about that though by the early '70s, he probably had his hands busy with moving Motown to L.A. anyway. In any case, here's two songs I picked out in memmoriam: one being the Dramatics' first hit (and one of their most enduring), "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" and I decided to pair that with a killer reggae cover of one of their other songwriting gems, "In the Rain," done by the Debonaires (thanks to Hua for putting me up on that single).

RIP, Ron.

The Dramatics: Whatcha See is Whatcha Get
From Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (Volt, 1972). Also on The Best Of.

The Debonaires: In the Rain
From 7" (Tobin, 197?)

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

posted by O.W.

Because I was in the middle of moving/unpacking/new house hell, I really missed out on being able to say something meaningful about the passing of Memphis legend Willie Mitchell or slow jam king Teddy Pendergrass.

As it turns out though, Matthew Africa said everything I could/would have about Mitchell AND followed that up with an essential mix of Mitchell's greatest moments. And Breath of Life came through with an equally great post about the life and times of Teddy.

Fabulous posts and absolutely a recommended reads/listens.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

posted by O.W.

Apache: Gangsta Bitch
From Apache Ain't Shit (Tommy Boy, 1992)

This one bums me out.

Apache may not have been a major rapper - his career came and went within a few short years in the early/mid-90s - but if he's destined to be known as a one-hit wonder, I'd argue that "Gangsta Bitch" was one of the more influential of its era. Lyrically, the song roiled many, not the least of which was putting the word "bitch" out so prominently and, if I recall, it fed into concerns (read: paranoia) about girl violence in that era; Apache was accused of encouraging female delinquency and violence, blah blah blah. From what I can remember, while there were certainly female rappers boasting about their bad ass-ness (B.O.S.S. anyone?), Apache was one of the first male rappers I could remember, besides perhaps Ice Cube, to pen an anthem to hip-hop's gangstresses. Biggie hadn't come out with "Me and My Bitch" yet, let alone the Lox's Ride or Die Bitch" or any of the subsequent songs you can think of. So there's that.

But for me, Apache's verses weren't nearly as memorable as the beat - put together by Q-TIp in one of the first non-Tribe tracks I ever remember Tip's credit appearing on (this was before he gave tracks to Mobb Deep or Nas) and it was a beauty - total classic of its era. The drums come from Lonnie Smith's excellent soul-jazz-organ-puffer "Spinning Wheel" and four bars in, Tip hits you with a loop lifted from Monty Alexander's "Love and Happiness."


This track stays as one of my all time favorites and that's kept Apache alive in my memory for all these years. I suppose it's what will continue to even after his death.

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posted by O.W.

Richard's People: Yo Yo (O-Dub's Extended Intro Edit)
From 7" (Tuba, 1968)

When Doc Delay came through to spin the other month, he dropped this in the middle of a funk mix and trainspotter as I am, I craned my neck over to ask: "wtf is this?" It sounded like the unruly love child of a Midwestern funkateer backed by an East Harlem band and as I dug around for more info on its background, turned out I was more or less on point.

While the 7" came out of Detroit (rumor is, the vocalist was a janitor at Tuba Records), the backing track originated in New York which probably explains why the dip into the shing-a-ling has a distinctive Nuyorican sabor on it. Boogaloo fiend as I am, I love where Latin boogaloo comes back to the Midwest (where the booglaoo was born). It's very post-modern before anyone was talking about post-modernity(ok, I'm hella nerding out right now) but all you need to know is that "Yo Yo" rocks. Sure, it's a derivative track in terms of being a "new dance" that also borrows from any number of hit songs from the same era such as the "Cool Jerk" and "Here Comes the Judge." (Again, pastiche! Collage!) Plus, all that and a breakbeat intro? Oh hells yes. (Personally, I'd love to see how the "Yo Yo" is done; sounds like fun.)

(See also Funky16Corners' excellent exploration of the single's history).

This is jarring gear shift but I'd be remiss in not taking the time to mourn the passing of Teddy Pendergrass, gone far before this time (which is about 99% of the great ones, no?).

Teddy Pendergrass: Love TKO
From TP (Philly Int'l, 1980)

All-time, end of night, slow jam, red light classic (though I suppose "Close the Door" is the king seduction song even more).

King Kong: The Love I Lost
From Funky Reggae (MFP, 1970s)

Just played this out last night and cotdamn was this Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (feat. Teddy) such an incredible jam, made all the more enticing in this reggae-fied remake.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

posted by O.W.

Perhaps not the most appropriate song to be listening to on the date of MLK's birth but I always think of this song on this day.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

posted by O.W.

Again, I'm really bummed I'm not fully moved in yet because between Teddy and Willie, there's so much to say about how important these soul men are. I'm sure Mark Anthony Neal will be drop something brilliant very soon.

Meanwhile, I'm THIS close to unboxing my records. Here are my new shelves with the guy who helped me build them.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

posted by Soul Sides

It bums me out that all my soul LPs (including everything I have by Willie or produced by him) is still boxed up and not readily accessible. To be sure, we just lost one of the most important architects of American soul. Respect due. More later.

Update: Eric Luecking does a great tribute on his site, as does Funky 16 corners.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

R.O.C. R.I.P.
posted by O.W.

I had been meaning to write something about the death of DJ Roc Raida but my man Hua pretty much said everything I would have and more.

The only thing I would add is that Raida's passing was different for me from MJ and John Hughes, though those latter two men certainly played a role in defining my childhood. Raida was, for all intents and purposes, a peer, part of my "cohort." My transition into adulthood came concurrently with me becoming a DJ and being witness and participant in the larger world that DJs like Roc Raida were kings of. I mourn his death but celebrate his legacy.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

posted by O.W.

Sad news out of Detroit (again): Baatin from Slum Village is dead.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

posted by O.W.

Some excellent reading on MJ's music and legacy:

Mark Anthony Neal: "That boy spent a lifetime seeking a meaningful freedom, perhaps from the tyranny of family, but later from the tyranny of celebrity. And yeah perhaps Mr. Presley, Ms. Monroe and those four British mop-tops could relate, but when that young boy was hitting his half half of them were dead—and they never had to deal with MTV and 24-hour cable networks in their prime."

Hua Hsu: "Jackson was one of the last figures of our time who could, in his very presence, describe the possibilities of pop. He wasn't just the King--he was the entire domain, the rules and regulations, the dream-horizon of the citizenry, the place where the land met the heavens. Jackson was one of the first (and last) artists whose new videos, tours and albums were actual, global events...This was the cultural history of the pre-digital age: simultaneity, mass worship, millions sitting in front of their TVs at the exact same moment. (The closest analogue now: millions around the world, sitting in front of their computers, carefully recomposing Michael's Wikipedia entry the moments after his death was made official.)"

Jeff Chang: "Long before anyone could read into Michael Jackson’s cubist, etiolated face a work of performance art, the wounds of internalized racism, or the excess of boredom and wealth, all those things that would make us either look away or gawk, there was his voice...And for that voice, he lost his childhood. Or more precisely, he gave it to us. Many of his most affecting performances were about distance and displacement, the desire to be somewhere else, the inability to return to a lost past"

Ann Powers: "I remember the inner sleeve of the Jackson 5's 1971 release "Maybe Tomorrow," one of the very first vinyl records I ever purchased. It was full of pictures of the brothers, their Afros shaped into hearts, their boyhood turned into a charm suitable for sticking onto a schoolgirl's notebook. In reality, Jackson was a black steel-mill operator's son from Indiana, no one a white accountant's daughter from Seattle would have ever met. The teen idol machine turned him into a dream friend that any girl or boy could have."

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "I remember when this came out, and all the kids who'd been lucky enough to stay up and see Friday Night Videos came to school bragging about it. You couldn't get cable in Baltimore back then. Fools were like, "Yo, every time he took a step the stones would glow! And then when he went invisible the stones kept glowing!!" We thought Mike could save us all. We hadn't heard BDP yet."

Ernest Hardy: "He was Blackness and maleness, soul music and pop culture, all forged pre-hip-hop, pre-Reagan, pre-crack, pre the implosion of short-lived Civil Rights-era idealism and hope. That’s an incalculably important point to understand the thick strands of optimism, possibility, aesthetic & political vision that ran through his work. And that makes the darkness and paranoia that marbled so much of his later work all the more heartbreaking, especially as it roughly paralleled the shifting tenor of the times. He never lost his humanitarian streak or his belief in the overall goodness of humanity, but the evolution of his own relationship to the world and his feelings about how he was treated darkened noticeably."

Hua..again: "in this moment before communication was instant and cheap, Michael was one of the most powerful access points to American culture from abroad -- his star didn't tarnish at the same rate elsewhere. Perhaps it was the wonder and magic of his music or the subversive hue of his skin that exempted him from accusations of cultural imperialism."

Jason King: "While I always felt Jackson had to dance out of the necessity of sheer ecstatic release, his younger counterparts, happy to imitate their idol, have yet to find their own original moves. Nor have any of them found a real sense of personal abandon in dance. It’s been said that Jackson did not pick up choreography easily (nor did Gene Kelly for that matter). But when he danced, he did so with fierceness, with creative risk. It was as if his life depended on it."

Greg Tate: "Michael's death was probably the most shocking celebrity curtain call of our time because he had stopped being vaguely mortal or human for us quite a while ago, had become such an implacably bizarre and abstracted tabloid creation, worlds removed from the various Michaels we had once loved so much. The unfortunate blessing of his departure is that we can now all go back to loving him as we first found him, without shame, despair, or complication. "Which Michael do you want back?" is the other real question of the hour: Over the years, we've seen him variously as our Hamlet, our Superman, our Peter Pan, our Icarus, our Fred Astaire, our Marcel Marceau, our Houdini, our Charlie Chaplin, our Scarecrow, our Peter Parker and Black Spider-Man, our Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke, our Little Richard redux, our Alien vs. Predator, our Elephant Man, our Great Gatsby, our Lon Chaney, our Ol' Blue Eyes, our Elvis, our Frankenstein, our ET, our Mystique, our Dark Phoenix."


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

posted by O.W.

(Editor's note: That whole "I'm done with MJ posts"? Ok, so that was premature. Sorry but the hits just keep on coming! This is from James Cavicchia, my favorite "music writer who is not professionally a music writer but better than many music writers who are" and a message board post he is allowing me to reprint. --O.W.)

The Jackson 5: I Want You Back
From Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969)
    "When I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever been fully convinced by Michael Jackson, really. Not convinced by the squeaky-clean pre-teen singing about women troubles in every other song, not convinced by the timid good-timer of Off The Wall (though I always think of Michael dancing, I never ever think of him dancing with anyone—do you?), not convinced by the cuddly werewolf/virginal baby-daddy/china-fine gang-war mediator of Thriller, and on and on. He was never convincingly girl-weary as a young boy, and never convincingly romantic, aggressive, or sexual as an adult. He always seemed to be just outside of the real action. And while this made me feel very affectionate toward him—he was so clearly a kid, one of us, who had somehow fooled the right people and infiltrated the adult world—none of his music ever seemed to have any real place in any reality that I was familiar with. I managed to grow up loving his music without it actually meaning anything to me; it felt huge and important, but weightless. Like cartoons.

    I know that sounds pretty negative, but what it actually ends up meaning is that Michael Jackson’s music works on me with a purity matched by few. Because for all the levels on which it may be suspect—lyrics, persona, whatever—there is one level on which it always always convinces: the sound. Three certainties in life: You will definitely die, you will always pay taxes, and you will never ever say “Man, that Michael Jackson song doesn’t sound as good as I remember.” It will only ever sound better, I promise you. Whatever suspension of disbelief the songs may require, and however little connection they may have to anything outside their own miniature fantasias, their reign within the borders of their runtime is absolute. They are unalloyed pop-music-production genius galvanized by Michael’s voice, which is not always the most integral piece, but is always, finally, the most necessary one. At the same time their immense commercial success keeps them present and current within culture, their essential unreality and inhuman inner perfection allow them to operate outside of time. They often seem less like actual songs and more like ideas that we’re all having at the same time. To hear them is to think, “Well, yeah—of course.”

    And “I Want You Back” is the best Michael Jackson song. It’s not quite my favorite (“The Love You Save” narrowly edges it), but it’s the best, and is one of what I usually consider to be the two archetypal Perfect Pop Songs. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot (I know, right?): The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” divide the world between them—there is no third.

    It starts with that piano curlicue that doubles back on itself before it’s even gone and tagging the guitar at the turn, the two together sounding like they could flip the entire sun like a fucking flapjack. Then the strings come in and then the bongos and then and then and then, and it’s not harmonious, exactly—there’s crisp separation between each instrument, and everything’s in its own space, but the sheer mass of all the pieces gives it this beautiful kind of overfull clatter. There’s a quick sense that not only could there not possibly be anything better, there couldn’t possibly be anything else. Mike glides down in full whine, and from here on out the song stubbornly defies momentum—it stays stopping and starting, the drums jump in place (only on the choruses, though—no drums at all on the verses), and it’s the most glorious parade in the world, too generous, and stopping at every house. It should annoy, but the thing is that after every single stop, it somehow manages—incredibly—to sound even better when it starts back up. You don’t think it will, but it does, every single time. By the end, hearts and ears bulge at the seams from the undiminished return.

    And although the song never puts across the sense of loss that you’d assume from the title, it’s okay, because it’s not really trying to. The amiable bass and the daylight guitar and that plinky piano that get sprinkled in seem to understand Michael in a way that Michael doesn’t understand the song (and probably couldn't, at his age): Despite the literal desperation of the lyrics, and even though he works overtime to sell us on it, it’s clear from Michael’s perfect, explosive vocal that he does not believe even for an instant that it won’t all work out, and the genius of the music is that it recognizes that this—the faith and the gold of youth—is the point of the song, not some girl, some…other. The point is the I, not the want. Just listen to the little vocal break before the last chorus: Mike’s trying to preach it on what would ostensibly be the climax of this love-lost song, but behind him is this springy guitar line cake-walking with some easter-bunny bassline. Like I said: There's an understanding. Understanding that when Michael sings “Won’t you please let me / back in your heart?”, it isn’t actually a question.

    Was it ever, really?"

    -James Cavicchia

Bonus beat: Jackson 5: I Want You Back (Z-Trip Remix)
From Motown Remixed Vol 1 (Motown, 2005

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Monday, June 29, 2009

posted by O.W.

This is (probably) going to be the last post I'm going to do on M-J-5 for the time being, bringing to a close a rather crazy 5 day period where it was all MJ, all the time.

1) I just recorded this in the morning: The Soul Sides Kitchen-Cast w/ Ann Powers. Besides being a good friend, Ann also happens to be chief pop critic at the L.A. Times and I invited her over to talk about MJ's musical and cultural legacy in my kitchen (for the record, my green room provides Orangina and mixed nuts).

Here's the podcast in streaming form or you can download it here.

2) Wil and I recorded our Boogaloo[la] set from last Thursday which includes a 2 hour opening set that includes a good deal of lesser known J5 and MJ covers/remixes/songs. Then there was our 2 hour MJ5 set which slammed down all the "best ofs" into a party-smashing mix. You can download both:
  • Pre-Tribute set
  • Tribute set
    (Just remember this was recorded live!)

    P.S.: I've been trying to figure out why I've been so compelled to stay on story over the last five days and it's certainly not out of the tabloid fascination that will only grow (and get uglier) in the weeks to come. It's the music, always the music, that keeps drawing me back in and it finally dawned on me this morning that while MJ certainly wasn't the first pop artist I heard in my lifetime, he was so utterly everywhere at my entry into the pop world that everything I love about music, about its emotional power and reach - MJ was a foremost influence. In other words, his music was one of the most important ways through which I learned to love music. And so, in paying tribute to that musical legacy, I'm really just trying to find a way to express an appreciation for a gift that, 30 years after I first shook my tush to "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," has continued to enrich my life on a daily basis. For that gift, I will remain forever thankful for MJ's music, regardless of what I may think of the man behind them.

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  • Friday, June 26, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    From the time he was 10 Michael Jackson grew up in front of the world - first wonderfully, then weirdly, then woefully. His death at just 50 is hard to quite process. A tragedy? Yes but I'm not sure if it's any more tragic than the grotesque implosion of the rest of his life. I thought Hua had it exactly right: "Different versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago."

    A similar point was echoed by my friend Eliani while we were noshing at 2am at the Taco Zone truck, following a two hour MJ5 tribute set with Wil at the Shortstop. In between bites of carnitas, she proffered (I'm paraphrasing), "depending on when you grew up, each of us has a different Michael Jackson we knew and lost."

    I was lucky to have grown up with one of the incadescent MJ incarnations. I probably heard a J5 song at some point in my '70s childhood but I don't actually remember hearing a Michael Jackson song until "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and the Off the Wall album came out. I was probably 7 or 8 then, just discovering the radio and top 40 and so my exposure to the expansive world of pop was indelibly marked by his presence.

    It's been an interesting process, trying to decipher what exactly made him so great. After all, and this is not meant to be remotely disrespectful, but while Jackson clearly helped sell a gazillion records, if you actually parse down his musical impact, he's overshadowed by any number of peers. Some have had a greater, overall presence on pop music (James Brown + The Beatles), others have stayed in the mix as a creative force with more consistency (Dylan), and certainly, there's been other artists just as commercially successful but more adventurous (hello Prince!).

    That said, consider how a pre-pubescent child managed to score success on par with Marvin Gaye at the turn of the '60s/'70s, then gradually pull away from the machine (or if you prefer, The Corporation) that fueled his success, only to emerge into a solo career that didn't simply improve on his achievements but elevated him into the greatest pop artist of his generation.

    Child singers are simply not meant to survive into adulthood. I can only think of two similar examples: Stevie Wonder comes to mind but Stevie never had the kind of instant success that the Jackson 5 provided Michael (that said, Stevie's creativity is unparalleled, including by Michael). The other would be, interestingly, Celine Dion. Do with that what you will. However, those exceptions aside, pop music history is littered with the ghosts of child singers whose careers disappeared with the onset of puberty.

    Whatever the truths of Jackson's childhood (idyllic vs. tortured), what you can say is that he had to shoulder the same kind of creative challenges under the Motown system that his colleagues - thrice his age - were also dealing with. Not only that but he was expected, long before he was old enough to even drive, to emote the kind of passion, longing and melancholy that usually only repeated adult heartache gives you access to. Emotionally, he had to grow up in his singing much faster than what his physical age would otherwise belie. It's common to talk about J5 songs like "ABC" being "filled with innocence" but if you listen over the group and Jackson's solo catalog from the 1970s, there's a lot less sunshine than you'd imagine. That he managed to drop iconic, hit records throughout most of that process (with the exception of a fallow period in the mid-'70s) is a testament to his talent/genius/luck/whatever you want to call it.

    And therein, to me, lies both the triumph of his achievements but also the makings of his (and in a sense, our) tragedies. As Jeff Chang argued, "for that voice, he lost his childhood. Or more precisely, he gave it to us," which isn't quite like saying he died for our sins but I think part of what Jeff is suggesting is that if Michael wasn't blessed with such a magical presence, we may not have liked him so well. And if we didn't like him so well, maybe his life would have turned out more normal, less (self)-destructive. These "what if" scenarios are impossible to answer, of course. All we know is the Jackson we were given and if his life is to be read as a kind of sacrifice to our pleasure, at least we can honor that by celebrating his libations.

    Consider too: Jackson was a once-in-a-lifetime musical (and of course, cultural) figure, the likes of which will almost certainly never be duplicated again (sorry Jonas Brothers). The pop landscape has shifted, irrevocably I feel, over the last 10-20 years and the ability for a singular figure to become a multi-generational crossover star seems practically impossible. Of course, it probably seemed impossible back in the '70s...until Michael did it.

    I should add too: for all his foibles, scandals and just general surreality, I absolutely guarantee you that the music Jackson and his family left behind will only evolve to seem more sublime, enchanting and moving [1].

    Ok - so enough about legacy; next time I pop in, it'll be to talk about Jackson's music. In the meantime, here is arguably the most memorable performance MJ gave. It is still incredible some 26 years later.

    If you feel like it, here's me and Jay Smooth musing on MJ for The Sound of Young America, recorded earlier today.
    The Sound of Young America

    [1] This presumes there isn't some smoking gun evidence which comes out posthumously that MJ was indeed, guilty of child molestation. But even his music could likely survive that.


    posted by Eric Luecking

    Say Say Say it isn’t so.

    As I started to compose my thoughts for this piece, my jotted notes alone were close to a page-and-a-half, and I’m sure that even in those, I’m forgetting a couple of points I want to touch upon. Some people you just expect to live forever as they are almost larger than life. It’s perhaps, to me, my “where were you when you heard about Elvis’ death?” moment. With Farrah Fawcett - whose same-day death was only a matter of when given her ongoing struggle with cancer - or with legends such as James Brown or Isaac Hayes, whose careers were equally as defining and defying, but whose time out of their heyday was long gone, the announcements were not totally unexpected. Michael’s death, seemingly, came out of nowhere. There was Michael the person, and then there was Michael as a mythos, as bigger than life, as a FORCE, only one of which has expired.

    A showstopper in any definition of the word, he transcended generations and racial barriers. From oldies fans who were there from the start of his career in Gary to today’s young teens, whose attention span and too-cool-for-even-last-week’s-number-one-hit musical tastes rarely wander from the MTV playlists, he rocked them all. Even as I talked to a co-worker today, she told me about her 6-year-old son who goes to bed each night playing the Jackson 5’s greatest hits CD. That’s what you call IMPACT.

    He was from an ilk who could sing and perform a song with his own style and master it to a T. Perhaps most remembered for his performances, videos, and dance moves, he was a truly underappreciated singer. He sang songs with conviction (“Scream”), attitude (“Dirty Diana”), desire (“Heal The World”), a sense of longing (“Someone In The Dark”), and heartbreak (“She’s Out Of My Life”). His aforementioned style, shown in his vocal trademark hee-hees and grunts, was truly his own.

    “Someone In The Dark,” an oft-forgotten song from the E.T. audiobook/soundtrack, is from his most fruitful period (the Thriller days) and may perhaps be his best vocal performance on wax as it is sung with such passion and longing of someone needing a best friend. Even today as I listened to it on my drive to work, it brought on goosebumps, the surefire sign of a remarkable performance. It was the ‘80s version to his ‘70s “Ben” in that it was based on a film whose characters, in an alien and a rat, respectively, were misunderstood creatures, not unlike Michael himself.

    Even in the poignant, if a bit saccharine, “Gone Too Soon” (from Dangerous), you couldn’t help but marvel at his ability to take you to another place. The song was dedicated to fellow Hoosier Ryan White, whose battle with AIDS and being socially shunned from his small Midwestern community brought a hailstorm of national coverage, and was a subject with which Michael was all too familiar - a boy who never got to fully enjoy growing up. It’s no surprise that at song’s end you can literally hear his voice crack.

    Then there are the dance hits too plentiful to name. My DJ friend Apollo calls the breakdown in “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” one of the baddest breakdowns in pop music history. My personal favorite dance hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” has an undeniable energy and its African-influenced Makossa chant is the enchanter to even a non-dancer.

    There was the famous moonwalk that Michael debuted at the Motown 25 Live televised celebration. Even watching it to this day KNOWING what’s about to happen, I am just as spellbound. “What? No he didn’t just do that! But how?” * Rewind * Jaws dropped worldwide and everyone was trying to learn that step the next day. I, too, tried for hours on end to learn to moonwalk, not as a child, but as a mid-20s young adult.

    When was the last time you were at a party/club/wedding where you DIDN’T see someone emulate a Michael move? Several years ago at a wedding reception, family friend Chad Decker and another attendee did the entire dance sequence of the “Beat It” video, streetfight scene and all. I’m sure they hadn’t done it in years but it was so ingrained in their memories that they nailed it. The entire party seemed to stop for those 4 minutes. Afterward, people high-fived and were basking in the influence of Michael’s glow.

    When talking about him, you can’t forget how he changed what a music video could be, from short form to long form. You could make an entire movie like Moonwalker. It was only earlier this week that I was talking about Captain EO. Until seeing Up 3-D, Captain EO was the last 3-D film I had seen.

    I’m not even sure that the word “awesome” can encompass his talents. He was that big. But in attaining such great heights, you only have further to fall. Alluding to a follow-up comment to O.W.’s article yesterday by av2ts, it’s a country (and world) where people love to watch your meteoric rise but revel in watching the trainwreck and fall back to Earth and beyond. Too many people are eager and willing to uncover your dirt only to bury you in it, even if that means burying you alive.

    His level of fame was a two-sided coin where people didn’t fully want to let go of the great memories but couldn’t quite resist to bring him down a notch or three, especially of a figure who doesn’t quite fit into their idea of normalcy. If someone has such glaring eccentricities, then surely the rumor mills can’t all be untrue. At least, that’s how we’d like to rationalize it to ourselves.

    That being said, this may only be the case during his lifetime. In death, I believe the future will be kind to his legacy. For while his image was tarnished for the last 10-15 years of his life, people also love a resurrection and redemption of great icons. For all the joy he gave the world by making you feel ALIVE, these feelings can be too emotionally overbearing to dismiss. The eccentric behavior, the neverending surgeries, and the circus that was his life may end up being an asterisk on a career, and more importantly a life, that is too expansive to be summed up in a few words or thoughts.

    His lonely death is symbolic in that there was perhaps no musical artist still alive who was more revered but who lived in such an ensconced world. His world was like a travelling zoo except there was no cage to protect him from the onlookers and gawkers who wanted a piece of him. While he was ultimately responsible for himself and his actions, I, for one, could never accost him as he had so much burden to bear that it made me feel a bit sorry for him. For no one gained – or lost – quite as much as he did in his lifetime.

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    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Update: On second thought, I think I was premature in suggesting that MJ's music couldn't outpace MJ's scandals. I've spent the afternoon and evening - like most people - revisiting his music and legacy and all the personal craziness more or less seems like someone else entirely. In other words, there was MJ on record and there was MJ the man but my emotional response to his music hasn't let the two blend together.

    That is the transcendent power of music, something that MJ, with few peers to match, excelled at throughout the best years decades of his career. Later this week, I'll try to do up something more proper in terms of a selection of some of my personal favorites from his catalog.

    By the way, I have to say, it is strange and sad to be in a world where Isaac Hayes, James Brown and Michael Jackson are no longer with us (amongst so many other legends).

    RIP to them all.

    If the news is indeed true that Michael Jackson has died today, a mere 50 years old, it's hard to greet the news with anything but a mixture of sadness and ambivalence.

    After all, how many other artists have seemingly done more damage to their own legacy than MJ? He went from one of the greatest talents that pop music has ever known to a surreal freak show to an accused pedophile. This is someone who's contributions to music should have transcended most of his personal foibles (pedophilia excepted) but instead, his tabloid exploits managed to become an inseparable part of his image and thus, memory.

    Marvin Gaye was apparently a real disturbed man and Miles Davis admitted to slapping his wives but those details are often treated as distinct from their musical lives. In MJ's cause, his "career" has become a conflation of everything; music takes up only part of it.

    That's hardly unique to MJ - Elvis comes to mind immediately too - but Elvis' musical majesty, in my opinion, never ran as long or as consistent as MJ in his prime, a period of time that at least begins as early as the first Jackson 5 singles (and that's pre-Motown, mind you), lasting to undeniable triumphs of Off the Wall and Thriller, and including a few key, post-Thriller songs.

    I don't enjoy those songs any less but there's always a stain below the surface, a reminder that simultaneously invokes a memory of "damn, he was good" immediately followed with, "damn, what a shame." I don't think there's much he could have done, had he lived longer, to escape that taint (let alone redeem it). I suppose it's out of sheer affection for his music that I wish it could have been different even though some might argue he didn't deserve such a salvation of his reputation. History will tell. For now, I'm content to simply listen.

    In lieu of a more organized/formal post, here's a rush job on tunes to listen to.

    ("Big Boy," an early, early J5 single on Steeltown)

    ("2 4 6 8." The numeric sequel to "ABC" recorded for the Jackson 5's second Motown LP.)

    ("Never Can Say Goodbye." Stone. Cold. Classic.)

    ("I Wanna Be Where You." Off of Jackson's solo debut, produced by Hal Davis and Willie Hutch.)

    ("I Can't Help It." Quiet storm at its best.)

    ("Butterflies." From his 2001 Invincible and one of the last great songs I heard from Jackson. Shout out to Floetry for the OG).

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    Saturday, April 04, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Big City's Jared Boxx puts together a nice little Latin mix for the UK's Jazzman Records. Recommended!

    1. El Green Hornet ~ Mauricio Smith (Mainstream) (Latin Jazz)
    2. Cat Fish Bag ~ Johnny Zamot (Grande) (Latin Jazz)
    3. Mia's Boogaloo ~ Ozzie Torrens (Decca) (Boogaloo)
    4. Going Nowhere ~ Freddie Rodriguez (UA Latino) (Latin Soul)
    5. Drag Sway ~ Jarito y Su Combo (True) (Shing-a-Ling)
    6. Kush ~ Antonio (Chocolate) Diaz Mena (Audio Fidelity) (Latin Jazz)
    7. De'se Mismo Trago ~ Pete Bonet & Louie Ramirez (Fania) (Salsa)
    8. La Banda Llego ~ Orlando Marin (Fiesta) (Mambo)
    9. Echa Pa' Aca ~ Gilberto Sextet (Ansonia) (Descarga)
    10. Oh That's Nice ~ Pete Rodriguez (Alegre) (Boogaloo)
    11. You've Been Talking About Me Baby ~ The Latin Souls (Kapp) (Latin Soul)
    12. La Bruja Negra ~ Joe Torres (World Pacific) (Latin Jazz)
    13. Wild Horses ~ Joe Cain (Time) (Latin Jazz)
    14. Quiere ~ Jack Costanza (Clarion) (Mambo)
    15. Congas Callejeras ~ Conjunto Sensacion (Tropical) (Conga)
    16. Descarga A & J ~ Johnny Rodriguez & Angel Rene Orq. (Mardi Gras) (Descarga)
    17. Cacumen ~ George Guzman (Fania) (Descarga)
    18. Taste of Honey ~ Willie Rosario (Atco) (Boogaloo)

    Also, the folks at Truth and Soul have a special Tribute to Isaac Hayes EP they put together, with the El Michels Affair covering songs such as "Shaft," "Walk on By" and "Hung Up On My Baby." Check for it!

    And just to complete a trio - Matthew Africa has re-uppped his awesome "Twee Funk" mix of children's soul/funk records again. Don't sleep!

    Matthew also links to this killer performance of "Hot Pants" by Jimmy Briscoe and the Beavers which has to be seen to be believed. Straight from Soul! (damn, that show was good).

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    Friday, March 20, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    (Originally written for Side Dishes)
    And another master passes...

    Sad news out of New Orleans today - Eddie Bo, the great singer, songwriter and producer/composer died today of a heart attack; he was age 79.

    Born Edwin Bocage, Bo was one of New Orleans' most prolific musicians, with over 50 singles to his credit and a vast number of productions as well. HIs career spanned over 50 years and it's hard to imagine a more stalwart and influential musical figure out of NOLA than Bo - he's certainly up there with the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Fats Domino, etc. (The UK's Soul Generation has a great, visual discography of all the different labels Bo recorded for, many of them of his own creation such as Big 9, Bo-Sound and Scram.)

    For my generation of Bo fans, we got into his style and sound thanks to the incredible funk sides he produced in the 1960s through early 1970s. Bo shared - in the most general sense - similarities with the sparse funk style of Allen Toussaint and the Meters since both made heavy use of the famed NOLA second line backbeat syncopation and polyrhythm. However, while the Meters' best-known songs have a density and gravity all their own, Bo's approach was more kinetic and lively - I always associate a subtle swing to this rhythms and especially thanks to constant collaborator James Black on drums, Bo always knew how to engineer a killer drumbreak to keep the crowd's feet in motion.

    The songs I chose barely make a dent in his massive catalog but it seems only right to begin with his best known song, "Hook and Sling," a 1969 single that's become commonplace enough to end up in t.v. ads. (Strangely, it's very hard to find on CD though).

    Eddie Bo: Hook and Sling Pt. 1
    From 7" (Scram, 1969)

    "From This Day On" is a strikingly distinctive song - a slick, uptempo NOLA soul song with a Spanish flourish thanks to the horn and guitar. To me, it's one of the best overall songs he ever created (and hey, Pete Rock probably agrees with me so I'm in good company).

    Eddie Bo: From This Day On
    From 7" (Seven B, 1966)
    . Also on Selected Favorites.

    As noted, Bo also produced for many other artists, especially female singers, including Mary Jane Hooper and Inell Young. For my money, one of the best sides in this vein was a duet he produced for himself and Inez Cheathem called "Lover and a Friend." Not only does it feature a great exchange of scorching vocals by Bo and Cheatham but the song opens with an incredible, blistering breakbeat, courtesy Bobby Williams. This track, in particular, was picked up for release by Capitol Records and briefly had some national exposure.

    Eddie Bo and Inez Cheathem: A Lover and a Friend
    From 7" (Seven B, 1967)
    . Also on In the Pocket With Eddie Bo.

    Seems oddly appropriate to end with a 1963 song by Bo called "Fare Thee Well," which he recorded for Arrow (then picked up by Chess up in Chicago). Rest in peace Eddie.

    Eddie Bo: Fare Thee Well
    From 7" (Arrow, 1963)

    (Thanks to Soulstrut for posting this one.)

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    Thursday, February 26, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Ian Carr's Nucleus: Roots
    From Roots (Vertigo, 1973)

    RIP to British prog/jazz/rock pioneer Ian Carr. I never did get that deep into his overall catalog (though I hear Belladonna is a must) but "Roots" has always been a favorite in the "heavy, heavy, heavy" category.

    And I'm also sad to report on the death of Detroit's Lyman Woodard, who apart from a long career as a consummate organist, also put together one of the best hip-hop-album-covers-before-there-was-hip-hop ever:

    Here's one of my favorite songs off that LP:

    Lyman Woodard Organization: Belle Isle Daze
    From Saturday Night Special (Strata, 1975)

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    Thursday, February 19, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Joe Cuba Sextette: A La Seis
    Joe Cuba Sextette: To Be With You
    From Steppin' Out (Seeco, 1963)

    Joe Cuba Sextette: Siempre Sea
    From Diggin' the Most (Seeco, 1964)

    Joe Cuba Sextette: Chichon (Juan Ramon)
    Joe Cuba Sextette: Tremendo Coco
    From Comin' At You (Seeco, 1965)

    First off, be sure to check out my piece on Joe Cuba's musical legacy since there's five other songs to take a listen to there.

    Joe Cuba will forever - and rightfully - be associated as one of the pioneering forefathers of Latin boogaloo. With the remarkable success of his "Bang Bang" in 1966, Cuba helped usher in the incandescent popularity of the boogaloo style in New York's Latin scene first, then watched it go worldwide as the boogaloo caught on with the greater Afro-Cuban community.

    Notably though, Cuba was unusually modest in his total amount of boogaloo recordings - really just two albums worth between Bang! Bang! Push! Push! Push! and My Man Speedy. This stands in contrast to someone like Pete Rodriguez, another one of the main people in the scene, who recorded at least four-five boogaloo albums during the style's 1966-68 reign in NYC. I don't really know why Cuba wasn't recording more, especially since he could capitalize on the immense success of "Bang Bang" (or perhaps that single's success allowed him to be more laid back than his peers).

    This is all the more significant in noting how Cuba's pre and post-boogaloo careers were far more prolific yet their respective legacies are less recognized. Cuba formed his first band in the mid-1950s, when New York was still in the throes of the mambo era and the slower cha-cha-cha was also coming into vogue. Cuba's albums of the Mardi Gras imprint - which I personally haven't heard - seemingly focused heavily on cha-cha-chas (which may explain his comfort with adapting those rhythms into boogaloo a decade later) but by the time he signed with Seeco in the early 1960s, he was also working with the then-popular pachanga style as well as early Latin soul boleros, the best known being "To Be With You," originally written by former Cuba bandmate Willie Torres but sung on Cuba's Steppin' Out album by one of his two main vocal partners, Jimmy Sabater.

    I actually didn't discover Cuba's Seeco output until the last year or so despite having been quite familiar with his boogaloo albums for many years.
    Those early '60s albums of his were a small revelation in showcasing how deep Cuba's career ran and how capable he was as a Latin bandleader. It certainly helped that Cuba's Sextet was one of the best small bands in the business, blessed with serious songwriting talent in the form of Jose "Cheo" Feliciano, Nick Jiminez, Jimmy Sabater, Willie Torres and others. It also helped that all three of his Seeco album were produced by Joe Cain, one of the best Latin producers in the game.

    This post highlights songs from that period, starting with "A La Seis," a fun, catchy little pachanga from Steppin' Out, Cuba's first album on Seeco. I don't know a ton about pachangas...except that I've yet to find one I didn't like. It was a huge hit in the New York Latin scene in the late 1950s through early '60s; it's hard to find many Latin albums of that era without a few pachangas and on Steppin' Out, Cuba balances the album with an equal number of mambos, pachangas, cha-cha-chas and boleros.

    On that note, I had to also post "To Be With You," which would become Jimmy Sabater's signature song throughout his career (including up through his disco era). You can hear how Latin soul got its origins - the subtle blend of Afro-Cuban instrumentation with vocals that wouldn't have been out of place on a Jimmy Hartman or Sinatra LP.

    "Siempre Sea" is from Cuba's second Seeco album, Diggin' the Most and right with how the song opens with what sounds like a I-IV-V progression, you can already make the linkages between this mambo and the future boogaloo sound. What makes that even more striking is the fantastic use of call-and-response on the song here (another staple of the boogaloo sound).

    Lastly, we come to Comin' At You, the best of Cuba's Seeco albums by far (in my opinion). I'm not sure if it's just luck of the draw or if Cain and Cuba just hit a real stride here but song-for-song, Comin' At You is a monster, with some of Cuba's best guaguancos ("Pancho Foo" and "Tremendo Coco"), mambos ("So What?") and cha chas ("Stuff 'N Things"). I was seriously torn as to what to pick off of here and so I just went with two favorites: another pachanga - "Chichon (Juan Ramon)" - and "Tremendo Coco." As I wrote in my piece, the latter song would get remade nearly 10 years later into "Salsa Ahi Na' Ma'" and since I highlight that song for NPR, I thought I'd give Soul Sides' listeners a taste of the original. It is quite interesting that even at this early point (1964), Cuba is deploying "salsa" in a musical context even though it'd still be at least half a decade before the salsa movement swept over NYC.

    As for "Chicon (Juan Ramon)" there's more of that call-and-response that I can't get enough of plus I'm feeling the piano montuno that anchors the song.

    In the next installment, I'll move into Cuba's years with Tico Records and how the blueprint for boogaloo came together.

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    Sunday, February 15, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Update (2/17): I wrote a short piece for on Cuba's music, including a five song playlist of some of his key recordings. Check it out here.

    Update (2/17): (from Beto) "Joe Cuba will be viewed at the R&G Ortiz Funeral Home.

    Wednesday & Thursday, February 18th & 19th from 2 to 10 p.m.

    A funeral mass service will be held Friday morning at 11 a.m. at St. Paul's
    Church located @ 213 E. 117th Street, between Park & Lexington."

    This one really hurts; Joe Cuba is one of the main reasons I ever developed an interest in Latin boogaloo and now he's gone.

    Cuba had a tremendous career in the New York Latin scene, easily one of the most important figures in the post-mambo era as both one of the pioneers in Latin soul and boogaloo and then transitioning into the salsa era.

    I had been meaning to do a post on the "best of" Joe Cuba and I'll try to get that in gear sometime this week. In the meantime, enjoy this:

    Joe Cuba: Hey Joe
    From My Man Speedy (Tico, 1967)

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    Sunday, February 08, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Blossom Dearie: I Like London In the Rain (edit)
    From That's Just the Way I Want To Be (Fontana, 1970)

    Blossom Dearie: Sunday Afternoon
    From Blossom Dearie Sings (Daffodil, 1973)

    Undoubtedly, one of the most unique voices in jazz history - you wouldn't think something so seemingly delicate and girly could hold a tune but year after year, Dearie proved us otherwise. She'll always form an indelible part of my youth thanks to this classic from the Schoolhouse Rock series:

    Rest in peace, Dearie.

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    Monday, December 29, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    For every beginning break collector, especially those coming out of the 1990s, it was inevitable that you'd end up with more than a few Freddie Hubbard records. As a trumpeter player, his work - especially for CTI - was such an essential part of the soul-jazz sound of the 1970s that would find renewed resonance two decades later.

    Hubbard died today, only age 70, from a heart attack. Here are a few personnel favorites:

    Red Clay


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    Tuesday, December 02, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    Odetta: Hit or Miss
    From Odetta Sings (Polydor, 1970)

    Odetta, dies at age 77.

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    Monday, November 10, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    Miriam Makeba, dead at 76.


    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    Dee Dee Warwick: Foolish Fool
    From Foolish Fool (Mercury, 1969). Also on Best Of.

    Damn, so many legends are passing (Dolemite, RIP!) right now.

    Dee Dee Warwick's one of those soul singers who had this incredible voice but never really got her due (unlike her more famous, younger sister Dionne). There's actually interesting parallels (however loose) between Dee Dee/Dionne and Erma/Aretha Franklin. In any case though, soul music has lost yet another great one. You'll be missed.

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    Saturday, October 18, 2008

    posted by O.W.

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    Saturday, October 11, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    1944 - 2008

    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.

    Alton Ellis: I'm Still In Love With You
    From I'm Still In Love With You (Trojan, 196?)

    Alton Ellis: What Does It Take To Win Your Love
    Alton Ellis: It's Gonna Take a Miracle
    From Sunday Coming (Trojan, 1970)

    This dude is back, recognizing the real:

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    Monday, September 29, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    1943 - 2008

    Updated: Mark Anthony Neal weighs in on Whitfield's leagcy.

    A few of my favorite productions of his:

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    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    Soul II Soul: Back To Life (acapella mix)
    From 12" (Virgin, 1989)

    Bonnie and Shelia: You Keep Me Hanging On
    From 7" (King, 1971). Also on New Orleans Funk Vol. 2.

    Patti Drew: Stop and Listen
    From Tell Him (Capitol, 1967). Also on Workin' On a Groovy Thing.

    Bobby Matos: Nadie Baila Como Yo
    From My Latin Soul (Phillips, 1968)

    Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: If You Can Want
    From Special Occasion (Motown, 1968)

    Menahan Street Band: Home Again
    From Make the Road By Walking (Dunham/Daptone, forthcoming 10/14/08)

    Final Solution: I Don't Care
    From Brotherman soundtrack (Numero Group, 2008)

    Freeway: Let the Beat Build freestyle
    From ? (?, 2008)

    Q-Tip: Gettin' Up
    From The Renaissance (Motown, forthcoming 2008)

    Black Ivory: You and I
    From Don't Turn Around (Today, 1972)

    It's the end of another summer, alas.

    Looking back over the summer songs season, I wanted to do the last post on the songs that ended up forming my personal soundtrack the last few months. To be honest, I thought this list would be a lot longer than it ended up being but I wanted to keep it to songs that I kept returning to over and over rather than something I found merely "good."

    Soul II Soul's acapella mix of "Back to Life" came at me three different ways: Murphy's Law dropped it at Boogaloo[la] and reminded me how cotdamn fresh it was, Greg Tate's Summer Songs post made me revisit the Soul II Soul catalog and I finally saw Belly which makes incredible use of the song to open the movie. Personally, I grew impatient to actually get to where the beat drops so I edited my version down to about a 30 second teaser before the "Impeach the President" drums kick in. As ML showed me, it's always a fun cut to play out.

    The Bonnie and Sheila, I have to admit, I learned about first through a quirky youtube video[1] and I wondered how the hell I didn't know about this earlier. Great little slice of New Orleans funk produced by the great Wardell Quezergue and released on King (the Cincinnati label most associated with James Brown). Words are insufficient to explain to you how much I love this song.

    The Patti Drew I owe to Chairman Mao. When I interviewed him for Asia Pacific Arts, he mentioned "Stop and Listen" as an example of a great soul tune that doesn't cost and arm and a leg yet sounds like a million bucks (not his exact words but you catch the meaning). I couldn't agree more. Don't sleep on the equally excellent ballad, "Tell Him" on the same album.

    I had totally forgotten about the Bobby Matos and Combo Conquistadores song, "Nadie Baila Como Yo" (nobody dances like me) off the incredible My Latin Soul album until I heard the Boogaloo Assassins play it at their shows. This may very well elevate itself to my top 10 Latin soul songs given how it changes up chord progressions and tepos not once but twice - it's like getting three songs in one; one of the marks of a superior son montuno. I can't believe I slept on this track all these years.

    I found the Smokey Robinson and Miracles song during my search through Motown's catalog to find tracks to play out that wasn't part of their Big Chill/Greatest Hits collection and I never failed to be amazed at the generosity of greatness that Motown provided over the years. For those who think Smokey is all droopy ballads, "If You Can Want" is a loud, proud wake-up call of funky power. How has no one ever done a 12" edit of this?

    I already wrote about the Menahan Street Band and Brotherman songs already but they're so nice, I had to list 'em twice.

    Freeway's freestyle over "Let the Beat Build" goes well with my official, beginning of the summer post where I nodded at Lil Wayne's original. Free, who had one of the best albums of last year that few seemed to notice, murders over Kanye's beat here. After, uh, a million subpar "A Milli" freestyles, I was happy to hear someone pick a different track to rip.

    The last song is one I should have started the summer with. Late pass. Q-Tip's had a rough, um, decade so far in terms of being able to get this music to the masses but I'm hoping "Gettin' Up" does it right for him in preparation for his Renaissance album. This is, by far, the best thing I've heard from 'Tip since this and without getting all misty-eyed for my halcyon teens and 20s, listening to Tribe, this song just f---ing sounds good in the way the best Tribe songs just sounded f---ing good. (No doubt, it helps that the sample source is also f---ng good: "You and I" by Black Ivory. Read more here.).

    By the way, if I had to pick my absolute favorite song of the summer...surprisingly, it'd end up being Solange Knowles' "I Decided." Don't ask me why but this has stuck with me the entire time through without ever ceasing to be pleasurable.

    And with that...I bid all you adieu until next May but hope you keep the memory of summer in your mind alive until then.[2]

    [1] Don't laugh - he dances better than you.

    [2] Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere.

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    Thursday, August 14, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    (Editor's Note: This comes from Matt Rogers, one of the contributing editors at Wax Poetics and someone who I thought could do an excellent retrospective on the late Jimmy McGriff (who we lost earlier this year). With his death, alongside that of Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith, one of the greatest sets of jazz organists to ever come through are now gone. Rogers pays proper tribute to one of those masters. --O.W.)

    Written by Matt Rogers:
      "This is what we call the love instrument," Jimmy McGriff said to me once during an interview for this. At the time, he was sitting at the helm of the 400lb lovechild of pipe organ and furniture-piece, better known as the Hammond B-3 that, along with its Leslie speaker, occupied a significant chunk of the man's living room. "If you love it and play it like you mean it, it will work for you." And work for him "the Beast" (as it's often referred to by many of its devotees), most certainly did, propelling a sixty-year professional music career in which McGriff loved and played the indefatigable instrument in clubs and concert halls the world over, all the while greasing heavyweight grooves onto a plethora of albums for numerous record labels--including Sue, Solid State, Blue Note, Capitol, Groove Merchant and Milestone--that would be sampled by hip-hop heads for years to come. Sadly, on May 24th, 2008, the great Jimmy McGriff died--aged 72--just outside his hometown of Brotherly Love, the cause complications from multiple sclerosis, which he'd battled the last two decades of his life.

      James Harrell McGriff Jr. was humble, reserved, confident; one of the last of his ilk, that is, a "jazz" musician who in the ‘60s and ‘70s took jazz and slapped it silly with funk. Whereas many jazz artists (let alone critics) decried such "debasing" of jazz, Hammond organists—who had a virtual orchestra under their fingertips and heels--seemed a natural fit. Born April 3rd, 1936--not long after the first Hammond organs were being rolled off of Chicago assembly lines--into a family steeped in the thick sacred and secular Philadelphia music scene, McGriff grew up in the Germantown neighborhood known as the Brickyard, where it wasn't uncommon for folks such as Count Basie to be jammin' at the McGriff household and encouraging Jimmy Jr. to take a taste. And he did, sampling piano, violin, drums, and vibes before landing his first gig at 13 playing bass for singer Big Maybelle. Officially bit, McGriff then picked up sax gigs with Hammond organ-based groups, most notably organist Richard "Groove" Holmes's, who insisted Jimmy--now earning his bread as a city police officer (he'd given Miles Davis a parking ticket)--was misfiring his talents and sternly sat him down at the organ bench. Thusly, McGriff became smitten with the Hammond in a town seemingly minting world-class organists daily, including Doc Bagby, Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts and, of course, the incomparable Jimmy Smith.

      "Jimmy Smith is the king of the jazz," McGriff would say years later in a radio interview, "but when it comes into the blues thing, we got a little different outlook on things." True enough, throughout his career McGriff routinely insisted he was not a jazz organist but rather a blues organ player, and he found his voice in melding gospel, blues and jazz like no organist before him or after. One could probably attribute part of his claim to his desire (and need) to differentiate himself from the long, thick shadow cast by the Tiger Woods of jazz organ--Jimmy Smith--as well as critics/publicity folk/stores who needed to categorize his efforts. However, one must only look at McGriff's vast record of records to know that the man knew what he was talking about. According to McGriff, his two biggest influences were indeed Ray Charles and Count Basie, and like Basie, McGriff was more concerned not with the speed and number of notes one could play, but where they were placed. His M.O. from the get go was to combine his love for gospel stomp and big band swing into something new, call it jazz, soul jazz, funk, whatever you want. The bottom line: whatever he played, whether original tune or cover, he usually made it groove.

      I've Got A Woman
      From I've Got A Woman (Sue, 1962)

      From Jimmy McGriff at the Organ (Sue 1964)

      Jungle Cat
      7" (Jell, 196?)

      Where It's At
      From Where the Action Is (Veep, 1965ish)

      Motoring Along
      From Step 1 (Solid State, 1968)

      Jimmy Smith: Motoring Along
      From Home Cookin' (Blue Note, 1958)

      [Sidenote: McGriff's first single, "Foxy Do," for the White Rock label in 1960 features a young Charlie Earland on sax. If you've ever heard it, please holla'. McGriff would end up mentoring Earland on organ like "Groove" Holmes had done for him. Probably not a coincidence all three were some of the funkiest of their peers. The tunes covered in this overview lean in that direction.]

      McGriff's first smash single, a cover of Ray Charles' "I've Got a Woman," was recorded first for his manager's record label, Jell Records, in '61, then picked up by Juggy Murray's Sue Records, which was distinctly a very un-jazzy label, focusing more on the likes of Ike and Tina Turner and Baby Washington. A full-length LP, I've Got a Woman followed in '62, as McGriff would proceed to lay down seven LPs for Sue from '62-'64, all heavily soaked with gospel, blues and jazz. "Kiko, " a sped-up kissing cousin of Bill Doggett's smash, "Honkytonk," was another hit for McGriff and became a calling card for his live shows.

      Before Jimmy McGriff moved onto the next phase of his career, in which he was scooped by producer and A&R man Sonny Lester, McGriff recorded "Jungle Cat (pt.1)," a 45-only release on Jell; it's notable as it features his brother Hank McGriff on bongos. Whereas "Jungle Cat" may have been recorded live, "Where It's At" certainly was, in Newark, NJ, itself a hotbed for Hammond organists, featuring the rhythmic guitar wonder Thornell Schwartz, who'd share time between Jimmy Smith's and McGriff's bands. Ironically, McGriff wasn't the first one to record one of his own songs. Jimmy Smith beat him to the punch, recording McGriff's "Motoring Along" in '58, well before McGriff had any record deal, and ten years before McGriff would set his own version to wax.

      From Cherry (Solid State, 1966)

      I Got the Feelin'
      From Honey (Solid State, 1968)

      The Worm
      From The Worm (Solid State, 1968)

      A Thing to Come By, Pt. 2
      From A Thing to Come By (Solid State, 1969)

      Chris Cross & The Bird Wave
      From Electric Funk (Blue Note, 1969)

      Ain't It Funky Now
      From Soul Sugar (Capitol, 1971)

      Jimmy McGriff's association with Sonny Lester lasted fifteen years, as McGriff essentially became Lester's linchpin for two significant record labels he would create, the first being Solid State in '66, the second being Groove Merchant in ‘71. Lester's eye was always trained on the jukebox and he saw McGriff as someone who could place many 45s there. After allowing McGriff to fulfill a lifelong dream of recording an album with Count Basie's band, Tribute to Basie, Lester threw a slew of pop tunes at him, including "Tequila," as well as soul tunes such as "Respect" and "We're a Winner."

      In fact, McGriff told stories about how over the years James Brown, no stranger to the Hammond organ, would harass him for organ lessons anytime he would bump into him at a gig. Maybe the requests had something to do with McGriff's take on the Godfather's work. Regardless, McGriff embraced soul and funk as the decade wore on, and would frequently feature the horn work of Blue Mitchell and Arthur "Fats" Theus. Theus, an astute study of Eddie Harris's Varitone sax technique, would pen McGriff's hit, "The Worm, " the title track from his '68 LP (which also contained the nugget, "Blue Juice"). "A Thing to Come By, Pt. 2" showcases McGriff's simultaneous piano and organ bass work. With '69's Electric Funk, McGriff slathered his Blue Note debut with the assistance of arranger/composer/pianist Horace Ott, Stanley Turrentine and an uncredited Bernard Purdie. With tunes like "Chris Cross" and "The Bird Wave," McGriff's funk bag was cemented.

      Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker: No One Knows (What Goes On When The Door Is Closed)
      From Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker (United Artists, 1971)

      Jimmy McGriff & Junior Parker: Drownin' On Dry Land
      From Good Things Don't Happen Every Day (Groove Merchant, 1971)

      From Let's Stay Together (Groove Merchant, 1972)

      Jimmy McGriff & "Groove" Holmes: Beans
      From Giants of the Organ in Concert (Groove Merchant, 1973)

      Jimmy McGriff:The Main Squeeze
      From The Main Squeeze (Groove Merchant, 1974)

      Stump Juice
      From Stump Juice (Groove Merchant, 1975)

      Two of the most interesting collaborations McGriff ever did in his career were with the blues singer Junior Parker and fellow organist Richard "Groove" Holmes. McGriff recorded two albums with Parker before he tragically died of cancer at 38; one, recorded live at McGriff's Newark club, the Golden Slipper, the other recorded in-studio. These albums would be released under varying titles both on Capitol and Sonny Lester's new label, Groove Merchant. Groove Merchant did exactly what it's name implied: sold the groove. McGriff, along with folks like Lonnie Smith, Reuben Wilson, Carmen McRae, as well has his close friend and mentor, "Groove" Holmes, became the label's premier acts. McGriff continued to churn out soul jazz, funk jazz, jazz funk, whatevah, via a host of albums like Fly Dude, Groove Grease and Let's Stay Together. McGriff and Holmes also recorded a pair of albums together, the first in-studio, the other a torrid double LP recorded live at Paul's Mall in Boston. One of McGriff's favorite efforts, you can compare and contrast student and teacher's styles on this jam-laden nugget, as McGriff is panned to your left and Holmes to your right. The shortest cut, "Beans," lends itself to such aural taste tests.

      As synthesizers began elbowing their way onto wax, McGriff held the funk mantle while embracing the new technology, as illustrated on cuts like "Stump Juice, that would serve an eventual death knell for the soon-to-be bankrupt Hammond organ company. At the height of the synth-craze, McGriff's partnership with Sonny Lester sputtered, and he'd forge a new relationship with producer Bob Porter in 1980, moving back to his blues-based roots for the remaining two decades of his recording career. But he never forgot his love for the funk. "Funk had been good to me," McGriff told me once. "And me and that organ had been good to funk."

    Jerry Wexler: 1917 - 2008

    It's been a bad week. More to follow.

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    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    ISAAC HAYES: 1942 - 2008
    posted by O.W.

    Like the passing of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield or Ray Charles, it is hard to fully grasp the enormity of what has been lost with this weekend's death of Isaac Hayes. The baritone giant will forever be linked with Shaft, for better or for worse, but as critically and commercially important that was in Hayes' long career, it is just one tiny fragment of his overall contributions to R&B and soul music. Hayes was much more than a singer; he was a composer, a writer, an arranger and producer, as multi-talented as any R&B figure, including contemporaries such as Stevie Wonder or Smokey Robinson.

    Remember that before Hayes ever graced his own album covers, he and writing/composing partner David Porter had penned some 200 songs for Stax/Volt Records; theirs was one of the most prolific and important of collaborations. The Hayes/Porter name, like Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland or Philly Intl's Gamble-Huff, was like a stamp of excellence for most of the singles and albums the credit appeared on. They are best known for Sam and Dave's hits like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin" but my personal favorites were some of the tracks they wrote for Stax/Volt's female artists.

    Ruby Johnson: I'll Run Your Hurt Away
    From 7" (Volt, 1966).

    The Charmels: As Long As I've Got You
    From 7" (Volt, 1967)

    Both available on The Complete Stax-Volt Singles, Vol. 1

    Soul Children: The Sweeter He Is
    From S/T (Stax, 1969)

    The Emotions: So I Can Love You
    From So I Can Love You (Stax, 1969)

    When Hayes set out onto his solo career with 1968's Presenting Isaac Hayes, it was a surprising flop and Hayes placed much on the blame on the fact that he hadn't been able to make the album his way (for example, the original version of "Precious, Precious" tops out at over 19 minutes but on the album, it was cut to less than 3. For his next album, Hot Buttered Soul, Al Bell gave Hayes a green-light to do whatever he wanted and thus was born one of the greatest soul albums ever recorded. For those who've heard the single-shortened versions of songs like "Walk On By" and "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," you're still getting good songs but they're removed from the incredible majesty of their album versions - 15+ minute epic songs of orchestral swells and rhythmic thunder. Much has also been made of his innovation on "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" where he monologues for nearly nine minutes before actually getting into the song itself. The device has been turned into gimmick by some (see Alicia Keys on "You Don't Know My Name") but it's better to think of it as part of the same tension/release cycle that was so much a part of Hayes' output in these years.

    For those who've heard this again, listen to it again - tune everything else out and just listen to this. Loudly. If you've never heard this before? Hold ya head.

    Isaac Hayes: Walk On By (album version)
    From Hot Buttered Soul (Stax, 1969)

    The next two Hayes albums, The Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued were also cut in similar fashion to Hot Buttered Soul, each song a sonic journey, filled with all kinds of melodic and rhythmic turns and twists. I need to really sit with Movement more but I was enjoying To Be Continued again, earlier today, and the album is as incredible a listening experience as anything he's ever turned out. Here's two-thirds of his B-side medley, including his sublime instrumental, "Ike's Mood I" and a surprising cover of the Righteous Bros.' hit, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

    This all culminated with 1971's Black Moses, a double album whose title and artwork were more of the label's choosing than Hayes but it's hard to hold back on messianic analogies given how masterfully Hayes can take on half a dozen of other people's songs and then put his permanent stamp on them (Movement was similar in this respect). I've included one of the two "never" songs from the album, his version of Jerry Butler's "Never Gonna Give You Up" (the other was Hayes' cover of the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye.")

    Isaac Hayes: Ike's Mood I/You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
    From To Be Continued (Enterprise, 1970)

    Isaac Hayes: Never Gonna Give You Up
    From Black Moses (Stax, 1971)

    According to Melvin Van Peebles in an interview I had with him, the filmmaker and blaxploitation visionary was responsible for setting the chain of events in motion that lead to Hayes recording Shaft. Peebles had recorded the soundtrack for his Sweetback's Baadassss Song for Stax, mostly because in those days, Stax head Al Bell was open to taking all kinds of chances, including putting out a soundtrack by a then-unknown Earth, Wind and Fire, for Peebles' independently financed film about sex, drugs and violence in the Black ghetto. When Sweetback turned out to be the most successful independent film of the year, with the soundtrack blowing up as well, MGM decided to change the lead character in Shaft from a white detective to Black and then went to Stax to see if they'd be willing to partner on the soundtrack. Hayes was chosen to head the project and a classic was born.

    Personally, if I never heard the theme to Shaft again, it'd be too soon but I've always had a special fondness for the charming beauty of "Ellie's Love Theme." Hayes would go onto record two more blaxploitation soundtracks, for Tough Guys and Truck Turner respectively. None of them had the same impact as Shaft though that's not to say there aren't some concrete-crackin' hits on them, such as Truck Turner's dark "Breakthrough" or Tough Guys' memorable "Hung Up On My Baby."

    Isaac Hayes: Ellie's Love Theme
    From Shaft OST (Enterprise, 1971)

    Isaac Hayes: Breakthrough
    From Truck Turner OST (Enterprise, 1974)

    I'll be the first to admit, after this point, my familiarity with Hayes' catalog begins to fall off considerably (and for many purists, Hayes' disco-era work is nowhere near as revered), save perhaps for "A Few More Kisses To Go" given the Redman connection. I'll end by saying that, with some artists, Hayes is one of those artists whose work I always respected when he was alive but as is too often the case, you don't realize how truly remarkable someone like he is until he's gone. Having spent much of the afternoon just revisiting his catalog, I'm even more in awe than ever. An incredible man, an incredible loss at age 65.

    For more...

    Fresh Air's interview with Hayes from 1994
    Hayes performing "The Look of Love" at Wattstax.
    Hayes...the Chef years

    ...and maybe I'll whip up a post of the best covers of Hayes' songs...

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