29 January 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: James Jamerson

James Jamerson, pictured above, using "the hook" on his 1962 Fender electric bass, which he famously nicknamed "The Funk Machine."

He has been called the most influential electric bass player in the history of rock and roll by his peers. The most noted comments came in a 1995 interview, when Paul McCartney recalled his training on the instrument, saying "I started listening to other bass players, mainly Motown. As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero . . . because he was so good and melodic." Motown founder Barry Gordy described him as "a genius on the bass . . . an incredible improviser in the studio and somebody I always wanted on my sessions."

James "Igor" Jamerson was the undisputed anchor of the Motown house band known as "The Funk Brothers." With the drummers Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, the famously unknown rhythm section played on more number one hits than the Beatles. The Sound of Young America pumped out successful 45s throughout the 1960s with nary a session credit mentioned anywhere on record sleeves or newspaper stories. It took he 1988 book by Alan Slutsky on Jamerson and the subsequent excellent documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown to bring Jamerson and other Funk Brothers to the forefront. [The story of Jamerson's recording of the bass lines on Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On is worth a view of the movie alone.]

Jamerson died tragically at the young age of 45 in 1983. He was posthumously elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. It would have been his birthday today, so let's celebrate his genius by spinning a few of his most endearing performances:

Taken from the rarely seen documentary Save The Children, Marvin Gaye sings 'What's Goin' On" and "What's Happening Brother" in concert from 1973. About 2:30 into the clip, watch for Jamerson and observe his unique index finger bass playing style (known as "the hook").

Now isolate the bass on your stereo and marvel at the bass line Jamerson delivers on Stevie Wonder's smash "I Was Made To Love Her."

And one of the crowning achievements of the Motown catalog: The Four Tops sing "Bernadette" in 1967. Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland. Levi Stubbs on lead vocal. Jamerson scales the heights of the bass matching the driving beat of Benny Benjamin.

28 January 2010

Albums You Must Own (#9 in a series)

The Roches
The Roches (Warner Bros. 1979)

[Editor's note: Celtic Ray, TNOP's correspondent from County Clare, Republic of Ireland, contributed this entry in the series.]

The resurgence of vocal harmony in popular music has been a trend worth noting in the last couple of years. The Magic Numbers, The Thrills, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and Monsters of Folk have been in the forefront. As a long time listener, I immediately hearken back to these groups' obvious influences: the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

But a message from an old colleague reminded us of an album from 1979 by three Irish-American sisters hailing from New Jersey. Appropriately enough, they introduce themselves on Side One, Track One:

Sisters Maggie and Terre had been bartenders at Gerde's Folk City in New York and were allowed to perform on occasion on stage. In 1973, the two contributed backing vocals on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon. The two recorded one album together, Seductive Reasoning (1975). After a brief detour living in Louisiana, they were joined by younger sis Suzzy at the end of the 1970s. The trio got a deal with Warner Brothers, resulting in the self-titled LP produced in "audio verite" by erst-while King Crimson leader and guitar wizard Robert Fripp.

Fripp's sparse sonic touch and unique instrumental skills are most apparent on "Hammond Song," The Roches' masterpiece, spotlighting the opposing contralto of Maggie with the soprano of Terre. The addition of Suzzy provides the middle glue that bridges the high and low vocal ranges. Here are the sisters Roche singing the song from an appearance on PBS' Soundstage back in 1983:

Terre's "Mr. Sellack" follows, a lament to the unsure life of a singer. Begging for her job back, Maggie's voice drops to the ground, singing Give me a broom/And I'll sweep my way to heaven. The Roches thought it the perfect vehicle to showcase not only their harmonies but playful stage presence as well on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981.

"The Troubles" is particularly clever. The lyric borrows the phrase coined for the sectarian strife in Ireland at the time and juxtaposes that serious subject with the personal "troubles" of leaving one's boyfriend and hoping to find a favorite food in a foreign land. The blending of the three voices then breaks off into a round.

The voices are so confident throughout the record not only emoting their own personal foibles, but those of the various characters that pop up in everyday life: parents, siblings, friends and strangers. The Roches are reporters of the ridiculous and sublime: "The Train" is a John Cheever-like story with a clever wink.

A wink with substance. And that's the wonderful trick of The Roches. Just when you are tempted to focus on the sillier aspect of the lyrics or the stripped down production, you're grabbed by voices running off alone or in pairs, or an emotional lump comes into your throat when sympathizing with one of the myriad characters that fill the record. "Quitting Time" ponders the reward of a life's work against the goal of retirement. And the there's "The Married Men," a tale of dalliance to ward off loneliness - with a cost. Phoebe Snow made this song popular; watch she and Linda Ronstadt perform it on Saturday Night Live on 19 May 1979:

As with any album that calls you back for repeated listens, the closing track has to deliver. And the Roche Sisters do so in spades. "Pretty and High" conveys the literal high-wire act and the awe it can inspire on occasion. The first verse is an apt summation of how you will feel when you discover The Roches:

She came on the stage/In a dress like the sky/She had painted a sunset/Around her eyes/And all of the people/Were charmed and surprised/At how pretty and high/ And shy she was/Pretty and high and shy

27 January 2010

Covers, Covers Everywhere

TNOP has been impressed with a number of covers from noted artists flying around the internet, so we've gathered some of these efforts together for your enjoyment.

Dave Matthews & Neil Young, "Alone and Forsaken"
Out of the much hyped "Hope For Haiti" national telethon that featured dozens of musicians, this pairing and choice of song most floored us. The tune was written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr and originally released 25 July 1951. The plaintive cry of the lyrics were transposed perfectly to the tragic situation in Port-au-Prince and beyond by Dave Matthews and Neil Young. It is our best guess that the genesis for this choice was Young, given his affinity for Hank and covers in the recent past by fellow Canadian Neko Case (0n 2001's Canadian Amp) and frequent collaborator Emmylou Harris (from the 2002 Hank tribute CD Timeless).

Annie Clark & Justin Vernon, "Harvest Moon"
And speaking of Ol' Shakey, his "Harvest Moon" was covered by the stellar pairing of Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 23 January for Haiti relief.

Phoenix, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"
A number of sites have revealed the mp3 of Phoenix's interesting choice of covers: Dylan's opus to his first wife. [The track on Blonde On Blonde exceeded 11 minutes; the French band cuts that by more than half.] Interesting to note Thomas Mars' vocal approach on this one. Listen to it via Twenty-Four Bit here.

Fiona Apple, "He's Funny That Way"
Ms. Apple has been lying low for some time, so it is good to see her in this performance with her frequent collaborator/producer Jon Brion. The selection is an old jazz standard written by Richard Whiting and Neil Moret, previously recorded by a number of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Nat "King" Cole. The venue is Los Angeles' Largo at the Coronet on behalf of the "Love and Haiti, Too" benefit concert on 23 January.

26 January 2010

In Performance At The White House: A Celebration of Music From The Civil Rights Movement

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Paul Stookey at The Lincoln Memorial, before performing at the March On Washington, August 28, 1963.

From The White House (via Chicago Sun-Times):

The 2010 White House Music Series begins on Wednesday, February 10th, when the President and First Lady will host "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement" - a concert celebrating Black History month. Participants include Natalie Cole, Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Seal, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Howard University Choir and others. Morgan Freeman and Queen Latifah will serves as emcees for this concert which will feature songs from the Civil Rights Movement as well as readings from famous Civil Rights speeches and writings. The President will make opening remarks at this concert held in the East Room which will be streamed live on starting at 5.15 p.m. ET.

The concert will be televised on February 11th at 8.00 p.m. ET on public broadcasting stations nationwide as part of WETA Washington, D.C.'s "In Performance at the White House" series. NPR will also produce a one-hour concert special from this event for broadcast nationwide on NPR Member stations throughout the month of February, beginning February 12th. The special will be available on

As part of this special event, Mrs. Obama will host "Music that Inspired the Movement," a workshop that several of the event's performers will lead for 120 high school students from across the country on Wednesday, February 10th from 1.00 p.m. - 2.00 p.m. ET. The students will come to learn about the continuing relevance of music from the Civil Rights Movement to today's generation and its original impact in the 1960s. The event will be streamed live on and students all over the country will be invited to watch and engage in the workshop.


Bob Dylan sings "When The Ship Comes In" at the March On Washington.

"People Get Ready," written by the great Curtis Mayfield and performed by his group The Impressions in 1965. Mayfield was inspired by the throngs that gathered at the Lincoln Memorial two years earlier.

Pete Seeger talks about the history of "We Shall Overcome." And scores of artists sing it in honor of Seeger's 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden last year.

Mavis Staples & The Blind Boys of Alabama sing the civil rights standard "Eyes On The Prize."

25 January 2010

Radiohead Benefit For Haiti

Radiohead performed a benefit concert for earthquake ravaged Haiti last night at the 1,300 seat Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles. Reports are that the boys were in fine form and, more to the point, raised over a half-million dollars for relief efforts.

Rolling Stone provides a lengthy review of the performance.

Brooklyn Vegan gives us the set list and three videos from the concert: "Everything In Its Right Place," "Morning Bell" and "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi."

22 January 2010

Best British Album of Last 30 Years?

The UK's version of the Grammys, the BRIT Awards, will be handed out on 16 February in London. You can view all the nominees and respective categories here. But the only intriguing category to us is "BRITs Album of 30 Years." While there are a couple nominees who are milquetoasts, the list is fairly intriguing:

Coldplay - A Rush of Blood To The Head
Dido - No Angel
Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms
Duffy - Rockferry
Keane - Hopes & Fears
Oasis - (What's The Story) Morning Glory?
Phil Collins - No Jacket Required
Sade - Diamond Life
The Verve - Urban Hymns
Travis - The Man Who

In a very close vote, TNOP staffers gave the Gallagher Brothers the win, with Coldplay and Dire Straits tying for second. Weigh in if you want by selecting from this list or don't look back in anger and name your own favorite.

21 January 2010

They're Planting Stories In The Press

TNOP brings you the news without the idiot wind . . .

As previously reported, Gorillaz new record, Plastic Beach, will be released 8 March. The Guradian reports on the project, including the track listing. In addition, you can listen to the first single, "Stylo," featuring Bobby Womack and Mos Def, here. The band also will headline the last night of the Coachella festival in California on 18 April.

Vinyl lives! The web site nylvi reports that Radiohead sold the most wax albums in 2009, moving 45,700 copies. Close behind were The Beatles (38,800). Filling out the top ten: Michael Jackson, Metallica, Wilco, Dylan, Animal Collective, Pearl Jam, Bon Iver and Iron and Wine.

Conan O'Brien has announced the guest list for his last NBC Tonight Show tomorrow night: Tom Hanks, Will Farrell and Ol' Shakey himself, Neil Young.

Our friends at Muzzle of Bees tip us off to the upcoming Austin City Limits show this weekend, starring the Avett Brothers and Heartless Bastards. Visit their site and take in a video sneak preview.

Free Documentaries OnLine allows you to view The U.S. v. John Lennon, the story behind the government's efforts to deport the former Beatle in the 1970s.

Rolling Stone interviews Win Butler of Arcade Fire.

Kate McGarrigle, who along with her sister Anna wrote pop songs and performed as the McGarrigle Sisters, died after a battle with cancer this past week in her native Montreal. In recent years, McGarrigle was best known as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. The singer who made the sisters' songs most famous, Linda Ronstadt, reflects on McGarrigle's contribution to pop music with The Los Angeles Times.

Hopefully, last week we turned you on to the pop classic Something/Anything? Now let Crawdaddy! introduce you to Todd Rundgren's 1973 follow up effort A Wizard, A True Star.

Get your credit card and dialing finger ready. Radiohead plays a benefit show for Haiti at the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles this Sunday night. Good luck at the auction.

Mumford & Sons is the Paste Artist of the Day.

That's it from the news desk. As we go out, let's pay tribute to Kate McGarrigle and listen to her sister Anna's "Heart Like A Wheel," performed beautifully by Linda Ronstadt. Then, the McGarrigle Sisters and Ronstadt get together in Linda's Tuscon, Arizona living room in 1999 and sing Steven Foster's "Gentle Annie."

20 January 2010

2009 Pazz & Jop Poll Released

Music magazines and (now many) blogs have fun each year critiquing and listing their favorite albums and songs of the year. Including TNOP. But the most comprehensive barometer of the past 365 days in music remains the Pazz & Jop poll in The Village Voice, compiled from the votes of over 800 critics. In addition, the Voice provides entertaining articles and interactive links not only about the winners, but the state of the music industry in general.

For 2009, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion was the runaway number one on the album chart (entire albums list can be accessed here), and Jay-Z's collaboration with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind," took the single of the year honors (entire singles list can be accessed here). Phoenix made a strong showing on both charts, locking down the #2 album and the #2 & #9 singles.

19 January 2010

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slots 109 & 110]

Robert "Bobby" Charles Guidry, a native Cajun of Louisiana, died this past week at the age of 71. Known professionally as Bobby Charles, he wrote many popular songs, including "See You Later, Alligator," one of the first big hits in the new rock genre, and a paean to his musical center, "Walking To New Orleans." Charles was a performer in his own right (the first white artist signed to the famous Chicago blues label Chess), and counted a number of rock's elite as his friends, including Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. But his public persona was a very guarded one; while he sang with The Band in The Last Waltz, his appearances were few and far between. In addition, his recorded output was only occasional. But Homemade Songs, a 15-track album of originals recorded last year with pals Spooner Oldham and Dr. John, was released in May 2008. The liner notes were provided by none other than Dylan: “He was more successful as a songwriter than a singer. And it’s a sin ’cause he’s a hell of a singer. He’s got one of the most melodious voices ever transferred to vinyl. The boy could sing like a bird — he still does.”

TRIBUTE: The New Orleans Times-Picayune provides an excellent tribute to Bobby Charles upon his death on 14 January 2010.

ESSENTIAL LISTENING: Last Train To Memphis (Rice 'n Gravy Records, 2003) - an excellent two-CD collection of twenty years worth of Charles' best songs, with notable musicians on hand to help out. Bobby Charles (Bearsville, 1972) - called the "lost album by The Band" because the group served as backup to Charles, it is highly recommended (find it on iTunes).


See You Later, Alligator
Bill Haley & His Comets
Written by Robert Charles Guidry
Produced by Milt Gabler
Decca Records 29791
Released 1 February 1956

The music revolution was here. Some knew it, others didn't. Elvis smashed through the square barrier, but other musicians maintained the traditional look and surreptitiously advanced the cause. In 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded and released arguably the most important record in rock and roll history: "Rock Around The Clock." Throughout the rest of that year and 1955, the group had a series of Top 10 hits (most notably a remake of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll").

In February 1956, Haley struck again, this time with a song by a young New Orleans based
writer and erstwhile performer named Bobby Charles. "See You Later, Alligator" was a phrase that Charles accidentally tripped upon and incorporated into a tune. Almost overnight, teenagers went mad for it, and were dancing in the aisles in movie theaters when Bill Haley & His Comets were featured singing an up tempo "Alligator" in the film The Blackboard Jungle.

Listen and watch Bill Haley & His Comets perform "See You Later, Alligator" from the 1956 movie The Blackboard Jungle.

Walking To New Orleans
Fats Domino
Written by Antoine Domino & Bobby Charles
Imperial Records
Released 1960

Antoine Dominique "Fats" Domino (born in New Orleans, 1928) is, without a doubt, one of the most important figures in the history of rock and roll. He began playing piano for change outside honky tonks in New Orleans, and quit school at 14 to pursue a musical career in the evenings while holding a day job at a bed-spring factory.

Domino was discovered by bandleader Dave Bartholomew and had his first of a string of hits in 1949 with "The Fat Man." Over the next ten years, he would sell 65 million records, second only to Elvis Presley. One of those hits was a tribute to his hometown written with Bobby Charles, "Walking To New Orleans."

Watch Fats Domino and his unique rolling piano style in a live performance of "Walking To New Orleans."

Music On TV This Week


TONIGHT, 19 January
Late Show with David Letterman (CBS) - The Swell Season
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (NBC) - Spoon
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) - The Mountain Goats
Last Call with Carson Daly (NBC) - The xx

WEDNESDAY, 20 January
Late Show with David Letterman (CBS) - James Taylor and Carole King
Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . (Sundance Channel) - Bruce Springsteen (part one)
Last Call with Carson Daly (NBC) - Anya Marina

THURSDAY, 21 January
Late Show with David Letterman (CBS) - The Blind Boys of Alabama with Lou Reed

FRIDAY, 22 January
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) - Beach House

18 January 2010

Rock Monuments - Preservation Hall, New Orleans

In 1997, TNOP made its first visit to 726 St. Peter Street in New Orleans. It was an early Sunday evening in November, and a small crowd had gathered in line outside of the structure, which dates back to the mid-1700s. [In fact, it is a building that has survived city-wide fires and devastating hurricanes over the course of almost 250 years.] The gate was opened and we all were invited to walk through a long hall and into a small, musty room, outfitted with only a few chairs; as a result most stood or sat on the floor, backs to the wall for support.

A few minutes later, magic happened. Thirteen musicians crammed into the front of the room, somehow making enough space for one another and not stepping on the patrons, started playing a true American art form: jazz. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been entertaining millions since 1961 (save for about nine months post-Hurricane Katrina) at this address with the distinctive jazz sound that was nurtured in the Crescent City.

As past patrons are aware, there is no charge for the short concerts at Preservation Hall; the hat is literally passed around for the effort. In the latest attempt to support the historical landmark as well as its musical outreach program, notable musicians have recorded songs associated with New Orleans - all backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The result is the CD Preservation, to be released on 16 February. The roster of acts spans from the ground-breaking New Orleans native Louis Armstrong to Jim James and Andrew Bird. According to a special website, here's the track listing:

All Tracks featuring the PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND
Andrew Bird – "Shake It and Break It"
Paolo Nutini – "Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea"
Tom Waits – "Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing"
Yim Yames – "Fairytale"
Del McCoury – "After You've Gone"
Ani DiFranco – "Freight Train"
Pete Seeger & Tao Rodriguez-Seeger – "Blue Skies (Comin My Way)"
Jason Isbell – "Nobody Knows You"
Brandi Carlile – "Old Rugged Cross"
Richie Havens – "Trouble in Mind"
Merle Haggard – "Basin Street Blues"
Blind Boys of Alabama – "There is a Light"
Dr. John – "Winin' Boy"
Louis Armstrong – "Rockin' Chair"
Amy LaVere – "Baby Won't You Please Come Home"
Steve Earle – "Tain't Nobody's Business"
Cory Chisel – "Some Cold Rainy Day"
Buddy Miller – "I Ain't Got Nobody"
Angelique Kidjo with Terence Blanchard – "La Vie En Rose"

Bonus Tracks (Deluxe CD):
Anita Briem – "C'est Si Bon"
Paolo Nutini – "Pencil Full of Lead"
Yim Yames – "St. James Infirmary"
Tom Waits – "Corine Dies On The Battlefield"
Pete Seeger & Tao Rodriguez-Seeger – "Sailin' Up Sailin' Down"
Pete Seeger & Tao Rodriguez-Seeger – "We Shall Overcome"


14 January 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: Teddy Pendergrass

The screaming women called him "Teddy Bear." At the beginning of the 1980s he was a superstar, the sexiest baritone on record. He could be magnetic on stage, but his performances could border on camp. The image of his bearded, rugged features combined with the open shirts and medallions was seemingly everywhere.

Then, in March 1982, Teddy Pendergrass was driving his Rolls Royce when the brakes or electrical system failed and the car careened into a highway divider and a tree, and spinal cord injuries rendered him a quadriplegic. After extensive physical therapy, he would resume his career and even though the loss of breath control effected his voice, many of his new records became hits.

Theodore DeReese Pendergrass Jr. was born in South Carolina and raised in Philadelphia. Influenced at an early age by the gospel and soul music, he dropped out of high school and worked as a drummer in R&B and doo-wop groups. In 1969, he joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a long-standing local group.

Signed to Philadelphia International Records, the Blue Notes benefited from the production magic of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Pendergrass moved from behind the drum kit to lead vocalist, and the hits started to flow. The duo's distinctive production, a sound emphasizing sweet strings and big beat, was paired with Pendergrass' powerhouse of a voice, and the result was the monster hits "If You Don't Know Me By Now" (1972), "The Love I Lost" (1973), "Bad Luck" and "Wake Up Everybody" (both 1975).

It was reported that Pendergrass and Melvin did not continue to see eye-to-eye, and Pendergrass went off on his own in 1976. His venture as a solo act was an immediate success. Pendergrass had four platinum and two gold albums in the six years before the accident. He was in the same category of sales and popularity as Al Green and Marvin Gaye. But even Pendergrass thought some of the gimmicks used at his shows - for instance, handing out lollipops shaped like teddy bears to female fans - bordered on schmaltz: "As outgoing as I am, I'm still a country boy," he said. "It was complimentary, but it was hard to handle."

Pendergrass' later years were spent not only on music but active philanthropy on behalf of individuals with spinal chord injuries. After a bout with colon cancer, Teddy Pendergrass died on 13 January at the age of 59. He is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters.

His vital contribution to soul and in particular the unique "Sound of Philadelphia" will endure among music enthusiasts. In an interview today with the New York Times, Leon Huff said: "Teddy had that big, booming baritone voice, but he was a tender man. He was very lovable. You could hear it in his music."


Teddy Pendergrass first steps into the spotlight: "If You Don't Know Me By Now" with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes on Soul Train in 1972.

Listen to the great Philly soul opus "The Love I Lost" by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. TNOP still thinks it is the best vocal performance of Pendergrass' career, and a definitive example of the Gamble & Huff production sound.

Reports on the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass:
The Philadelphia Enquirer
The Washington Post (AP video) (story)
The New York Times
The Los Angeles Times
The Times of London

Art Fennell's television interview with Teddy Pendergrass from 2007.

13 January 2010

Tribute (In Memoriam): Willie Mitchell

Willie Mitchell, the house producer at Hi Records in Memphis credited with creating the unique soul sounds of Al Green, O. V. Wright and Ann Peebles, among others, died last week at the age of 81.

Born in Ashland, Mississippi, Willie Mitchell (pictured on the right, above, in the studio with Al Green) began his career as a trumpeter in touring bands. After a short stint in the army, he established himself as a bandleader in Memphis in the 1950s. Mitchell would record a number of popular instrumental records on Joe Coughi's Hi Records at Royal Studios, a converted movie theater on Lauderdale Street in Memphis. His band also backed up notable local artists recording at Royal, including Charlie Rich and Bill Black.

After the untimely death of label owner Coughi in 1970, Mitchell ascended to the head man at Hi Records. He would soon begin to make an indelible mark on soul music. Like city rival Stax Records - and Motown to a much larger extent - the secret to the unique sonic landscape created by producer Willie Mitchell was a tight band of studio musicians. "Hi Rhythm" was built around the Hodges Brothers (guitarist "Teenie," bassist Leroy and organist Charles), keyboardist Archie Turner (Mitchell's stepson) and drummer Howard Grimes, the hits started coming: "Take Me To The River" by Syl Johnson; "I Can't Stand The Rain" by Ann Peebles; and "A Nickel and A Nail" by O. V. Wright.

The sound itself was recognizable by a sweet organ, pleading horns and a steady, straightforward beat. When asked about its appeal, Mitchell told author Peter Guralnick: "Its the laziness of the rhythm. You hear those old lazy horns half a beat behind the music, and you think they're gonna miss it, and all of a sudden, just so lazy, they come in and start to sway with it. It's like kind of shucking you, putting you on."

His greatest success as a producer would come with a singer from Michigan who performed on the undercard for Mitchell's band in 1968: Albert Greene. Mitchell invited him to Memphis to record. In 2003, the rechristened Al Green reminisced that he owed much of his career success to Mitchell due to his mentoring in the early years: "I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Wilson PiItalicckett. He said, 'Sing like Al Green.'"

The result of their collaboration was a #1 single on the pop charts by 1972 - "Let's Stay Together." Within the next two years, the pair would produce another six singles, all of which sold over a million copies. At a time when the influence of Motown and Stax had seriously waned, the familiar cry in music circles was that Green and Mitchell had "kept soul music alive."

After Green swore off secular music in 1976, Royal Studios stayed busy with Mitchell productions. Artists such as Keith Richards (Talk Is Cheap), Rod Stewart (Atlantic Crossing), Buddy Guy (I Got Dreams) and John Mayer (Continuum) all made records there.

And Al Green would return to make more records with Willie Mitchell. Green, knowing that Mitchell had endured the personal heartbreak of the deaths of his wife and brother from cancer, called his old boss and said "Let's cut some rock 'n roll!" The results were more than solid: I Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005).

Next time you are in Memphis, make the pilgrimage not only to the site of Sun Records, Graceland and Stax Records, but to Royal Studios as well. The location is easy to find: it's on Willie Mitchell Boulevard.


The Memphis Commercial-Appeal memorializes Willie Mitchell.

Jim Carroll of The Irish Times interviews Al Green back in 2005, while touring and promoting the Mitchell produced Everything's OK.

The one and only Reverend Al Green sings "Let's Stay Together" live back in the day. And "Sha La La (Make Me Happy)" on Soul Train with Hi Rhythm in 1975.

Ann Peebles sings "I Can't Stand The Rain" and co-writer Don Bryant discusses the song's genesis. That's Willie Mitchell in the background as well.

12 January 2010

Johnny Cash's Final Album

Word has been leaking slowly over the past month or so that the final collaboration between the late Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin will be released soon. The February edition of Vanity Fair reveals that the release date of American VI: Ain't No Grave is in fact 23 February on American Recordings/Lost Highway, three days before what would have been The Man In Black's 78th birthday. Amazon also confirms and has an image of the cover art as well.

While we haven't been able to confirm the track listing as of yet, Rubin's interview with Lisa Robinson reveals there will be a Cash original ("First Corinthians"), the title track (a traditional gospel tune) and a version of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day." The latter, says Rubin, "is a song [Cash] brought in and loved. He said he'd give up all the other songs just to be able to do that one; it was his favorite, content-wise." Asked about the overall feel of the album, the producer/friend states: "American V was more touching; it felt like sadness and death. VI has more power; it's more like being reborn - like the phoenix rising from the ashes."

11 January 2010

Every Single One's Got A Story To Tell

TNOP once again finds for you all the news that's fit to print . . .

Jack White talks with Rolling Stone about the state of the music industry, starting his own record label in Nashville, the genesis of "Seven Nation Army," how Jay-Z is cool and a bunch of other stuff.

The Fader provides you with a chance to download with no charge the "digital 7-inch" of two outtakes from Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca sessions: "Ascending Melody" and "Emblem of the World."

Lights Out! Former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf will soon be releasing his first record in eight years. Paste reports that Neko Case, Merle Haggard and Shelby Lynne are contributors to Midnight Souvenirs, set for release on April 6.

"Sam Cooke: Crossing Over," a new documentary, airs starting tonight on PBS' American Masters series. Check local listings for showings over the next week. The Washington Post previews the show, which focuses on Cooke's cross over not only from the gospel realm to R&B, but also to the (mostly at the time) Lilly white pop charts, as well as his untimely death at the age of 33. Twelve years in the making, the film features interviews with alot of music heavyweights who have now left the scene. This also gives us a chance to highly recommend the fine biography by Peter Guralnick, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

Greg Kot follows up on the rumors that Pavement may be headlining this summer's Pitchfork Festival in Chicago's Union Park.

We guess the trove of old Jimi Hendrix recordings is endless. His sister Janie breaks the news that on March 9, the Hendrix Estate and Sony will release a "new" album, called Valleys of Neptune. It will feature 12 unreleased recordings. What makes this interesting is the comments of noted Hendrix biographer Charles Cross to the Los Angeles Times: “With so many different ‘official’ albums so far, and hundreds of bootlegs, very little Hendrix is truly ‘unheard’ or ‘unreleased’ these days," Cross said Sunday. "But to listen to some of Jimi’s final Experience recordings in their original versions, with quality remastering, is enough to get any Hendrix fan excited, particularly when the songs are as good as ‘Hear My Train,’ one of Jimi’s best ever tracks. Though this song was released before, it was on a posthumous album with awful overdubs, so to hear Jimi’s pristine recording is a joy.” So, maybe a slight return once again in the offing.

The Quietus went looking for Elvis Presley covers on YouTube and came up with some pretty varied - and good - performances, from The Dead Kennedys to Robert Plant and much in between.

The newest Daytrotter session features the American singer, songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston.

Passion Pit is hitting the road. On the heels of its acclaimed CD Manners, the band is covering most of the U.S. with some dates in Australia, Japan, the U.K. and Ireland sandwiched in between.

That's it from the TNOP news desk. While we're thinking about it, let's go listen to "Sleepyhead" by Passion Pit.

08 January 2010

Albums You Must Own (#8 in a series)

Todd Rundgren
Something/Anything? (Bearsville 1972)

TNOP recently went to the peach crate archives and pulled out one of our long lost favorites, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? Cracking open the double album fold, there's Rundgren, pictured alone in a room jammed with equipment, guitar slung over his shoulder and arms outstretched with hands in dual victory signs. It's 1972, and the newest pop whiz-kid seems to know that he has accomplished something special.

The buzz in the singer-songwriter corner of the musical world over the preceding two years was about an artist who had produced and performed an entire album on his own: Paul McCartney (McCartney). And it was no secret that the multi-talented Motown youngster Stevie Wonder was also toiling away in the studio with the same intention. [Ed. note: Wonder's Music of My Mind would be released a month after Something/Anything?]

Just 23 years old at the time of the recording, the Philadelphia native was already a music veteran. Rundgren had fronted the group The Nazz, a garage rock band that recorded three albums and had two minor singles, "Open My Eyes" and "Hello, It's Me." He had followed that up with two efforts under the name Runt, producing the notable Top 20 hit "We Gotta Get You A Woman" in 1970.

The four sides (as in old LP lingo) of Something/Anything? are all provided with thematic subtitles. The first three are entirely Rundgren's efforts, and he is joined by an able band (including Rick Derringer on guitar and the Brecker Brothers on horns) on the fourth.

First up is "A Bouquet of Ear-Catching Melodies." It's no idle boast. The one-two opening shot of "I Saw The Light" and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" would both land in the Top 20; they show off the influence of Carole King and Laura Nyro with aplomb. The Motown-splashed "Wolfman Jack" is up next, a tribute to the influential DJ who brought American teens rock 'n roll via Mexican megawatt superstation XERF-AM just across the border from California in the 1960s. Teenage heartbreak ("Cold Morning Light"), nighttime lurking ("It Takes Two To Tango") and a beautiful, hopeful ballad ("Sweeter Memories") round out Side A; almost forty years later, one is hard-pressed to find twenty minutes of pure, pleasurable pop that still calls for repeated listens.

Side Two delves into some engineering wizardry. As a tease, Rundgren provides an intro of examples of bad engineering. Pop, hiss, hum and editing are discussed by Professor Todd, finally interrupted by "Breathless," a prog rock/jazz fusion instrumental. Things stay interesting on "The Cerebral Side," highlighted by the amusement park psych out "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down" and the (yes) Gilbert & Sullivan cum Beach Boys "Song of the Viking" (the album notes provide the now interesting rock history footnote that the tune is dedicated to Rundgren's then unknown girlfriend, one Patti Smith).

The third side, called "The Kid Gets Heavy," is probably meant to be an indication of an edgier things to come, but "Black Maria" and "Little Red Lights" only carry through with that theme, clearly influenced by Santana and Jimi Hendrix. The tunes in the middle fit more with the previous mood, including the magnificent "Couldn't I Just Tell You," a power pop blueprint for the many groups that would follow.

The one-man show over, Rundgren decides to take on a full slew of musicians to tweak the fad of the day: the rock opera. Dubbing his effort "Baby Needs A New Pair of Snakeskin Boots," the spoof starts with an overheated cover of Barry Gordy's "Money (That's What I Want)" and Junior Wells' "Messin' With The Kid." Arena sing-along "Dust In The Wind" works without being pretentious. Then, curiously, up pops "Hello It's Me," originally recorded with The Nazz. This version, with no overdubs, would turn out to be the biggest hit of Rundgren's career. Then the singer bids adieu ("There goes Todd!") and launches into a trio of very amusing and rocking songs to close out Something/Anything? ("Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me," "You Left Me Sore" and "Slut").

The print media campaign in the music trades featured a picture of Todd Rundgren with a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lighted match in the other. The caption? "Go ahead. Ignore me." While it is true this eccentric musical genius faded from the front lines of music (recording album after album of eclectic music that couldn't be eaten up by the masses, as well as serving as a noted producer for noted rock acts over the years), Something/Anything? endures as a true pop masterpiece.

Todd Rundgren performs "Hello It's Me" live on The Midnight Special back in 1973.

Todd gives a bossa nova twist to "I Saw The Light" on a 1997 appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Joe Jackson and a string quartet join Rundgren for a version of "Black Maria" (circa 2007).

Have You Heard The News?

Elvis Aron Presley was born on this date to Gladys and Vernon Presley in a two-room cabin on North Saltillo Road in East Tupelo, Mississippi. In the words of one of TNOP's favorite dee jays, M. Dung: "He would have been 75 to-day, had he not gone a-way."

So have some fun with Elvis, baby. There's still "Good Rockin' Tonight," so TURN IT UP.

05 January 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: Arthur Conley

[Editor's Note: From time to time, The Dictionary of Soul looks at notable figures in the history of soul music, including those whose names have faded into the past.]

Arthur Conley grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and started out singing gospel at the tender age of 12, when his group was featured on local radio station WAOK. By the time he was 18 years old, he had followed the popular trend away from religious music that had been trail blazed by his hero, Sam Cooke. Conley cut three singles as lead singer in the group Arthur & The Corvets, but despite his strong vocal presence, the songs did not make much of a mark.

His next tried the solo route and a 45 that was released locally in 1964, "I'm A Lonely Stranger" (Ru-Jac Records), caught the ear of Otis Redding. The "Big O" signed Conley to his newly formed Jotis label and re-released the tune, this time recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis and produced by Jim Stewart. "It wasn't a big hit," said Redding, "but it started Arthur on his way." After another false start with the Conley-penned "Who's Foolin' Who," Conley was trucked down by Redding to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record his next two singles.

"Sweet Soul Music," co-written by Conley and Redding (and based on the melody of mutual hero Sam Cooke's "Yeah Man"), was released on Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. As Redding later wrote in the liner notes to one of Conley's albums: "The first record I produced on my own was 'Sweet Soul Music.' That's the one that did it. Arthur's fabulous performance on that record turned it into a smash hit. It made Arthur Conley a big name on the soul scene." That's no understatement by a mentor championing his protege. "Sweet Soul Music" is electrifying, a full-throated soul tribute to Lou Rawls (ironically a protege of Cooke's), James Brown, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and (at Conley's insistence) Redding himself. The revue style of the song, replete with a horn chart that drives you out of your seat, would prove perfect on the road and on the radio. It hit #2 on the U.S. pop and R&B charts, as well as the top ten in many European countries.

Word in the music community was that Redding was using Conley as his stalking horse, testing the waters in order to move from his long-time Stax Records home - and a somewhat acrimonious relationship with Jim Stewart - to the mighty Atlantic. Jerry Wexler, the master producer behind so many successful acts (most notably at the time Aretha Franklin), did nothing to dispel such rumors.

Peter Guralnick, in his superb book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Little, Brown and Company 1986), opines from his research that "[i]ntrigue aside, Arthur Conley was ready to move in whatever direction Otis pointed. He was not, according to those who knew him, a fully developed personality, either on stage or off. He was 'confused,' says Otis' brother, Rodgers, 'naive,' says Alan Walden, uncertain of his true nature, others suggest. 'Arthur Conley was the invention of Otis Redding,' says Tom Dowd, who was slated to produce Arthur's next album at American with Otis but ended up producing it alone. 'Otis,' says Speedo Simms, Redding's road manager and subsequently Arthur's, 'really kept him in line. He had to pay attention to Otis. He respected Otis. Otis was the one who could make him. He just had the voice.' Otis, for his part, applied all the lessons that he had learned coming up, tried to pass on whatever knowledge he had acquired to his young protege, and perhaps in the process further unsuited him to independence. In the end, for better or for worse, Arthur Conley was a star."

Conley followed up "Sweet Soul Music" with a minor hit, a remake of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll." His substantial sales - along with the star pull of Redding - ended up landing him high on the bill of the Stax-Volt Revue tour in Europe in the spring of 1967, despite the fact that Conley wasn't even a Stax recording artist. This led to some grumbling by the others, but the tour was a smashing success. Looking back, how could it have failed? In addition to Redding and Conley, Sam & Dave, The Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Al Bell and Booker T. & The M.G.'s shared the bill!

But the center of Conley's musical life was about to disappear. Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in December 1967. If you can find it (try LaLa), listen to Conley's stirring - and incredibly personal - tribute to his mentor, "Otis, Sleep On," released early in 1968 on his album Soul Directions. The effort also included the infectious single "Funky Street" but only enjoyed moderate sales.

Although it would prove to be a famous footnote in soul history, Conley fell into his next gig almost by default. Soul titans Solomon Burke ("Just Out of Reach" and "Got To Get You Off Of My Mind"), Joe Tex ("Skinny Legs and All") and Wilson Pickett ("Mustang Sally" and "In The Midnight Hour") hatched an idea with songwriter/performer Don Covay ("Mercy, Mercy" and "See-Saw") to create a type of black Rat Pack in 1966, which presumably was to include Otis Redding. Their goals were adventuresome: demand a million dollar advance from Atlantic to record and perform as a soul supergroup; set up a recording studio in Birmingham; and acquire business and real estate holdings throughout the country. To no one's surprise, egos got in the way, particularly Pickett's. Alas, it wasn't until after Redding's death that the remaining singers entered the studio, along with replacements Ben E. King ("Stand By Me") and Conley.

The collaboration was titled Soul Meeting. The five singers released one single, "Soul Meeting" b/w "That's How It Feels." Written by Covay, the review of the two sides by Guralnick is dead-on: "Covay tailored both sides of the single to the individual talents of each of the participants, and the whole enterprise had a loose, easygoing, improvisational feel which was scarcely affected by the fact that the singers never did get to actually meet in the studio (thus giving the lie to the title of the A side) but instead recorded their vocals separately to a backing track which Covay had put together with Bobby Womack at the Wildwood Studio in Hollywood." Soul Meeting fell flat in sales - Atlantic blamed the lack of original content; Burke blamed the label for tamping down the group's economic aspirations. The album, now again in print from Rhino Atlantic, includes a pair of individual tracks from each the five participants and is highly recommended.

Thereafter, Conley's career yielded a couple of minor soul hits and an ill-advised stint with Capricorn Records from 1971 to 1974. He left for England in 1975 and subsequently spent time in Belgium.

While Wilson Pickett finally joined The Soul Clan in an aborted reunion in 1981, Arthur Conley was in Europe for good. He eventually settled in The Netherlands and did some recording after he legally changed his name to Lee Roberts. He died of cancer on November 17, 2003.

Arthur Conley performs "Sweet Soul Music" live in 1967.

Bruce Springsteen gives his take of the song - saluting Sam Cooke - back in July 1988 in Basel, Switzerland; and again, finally finding the right key in November 2009 at Madison Square Garden during one of the "request" portions of last tour.

02 January 2010

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . [Season 2, Episode 2]

The second episode of this season's Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . turned out to be a mixed bag. Talented songwriters were grouped on the same stage throughout, taking turns with some of their more famous compositions. The guests: Jesse Winchester, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case and Sheryl Crow.

Jesse Winchester is one of the hidden gems in popular music. Born and raised in the southern United States, he attended college in Massachusetts and then defected to Canada in 1966 rather than serve in the military during the Vietnam War. From this self-imposed exile he recorded his first album, the eponymous Jesse Winchester, in 1970. Produced by Robbie Robertson, it was a highly influential work on par with the other solo major releases of that year by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. Although he would continue to release solid records over the coming years, because he could not tour the United States until the general amnesty declared by President Carter in 1977, Winchester probably missed the initial window of opportunity for pop stardom.

This episode appropriately begins with a blistering cover of Winchester's "Payday," with Costello and the song's originator trading verses. The opening cut on that first album by Winchester, it is a song Costello include on his Kojack Variety release back in 1995. Unfortunately, the interview with Winchester is edited severely, and the viewer - without a solid history of the singer's past - can never hone in on the effect the decision to move had on his career or his toiling in the musical trenches for nearly 40 years. On the other hand, we are treated to two other performances: the memorable "The New Old Tennessee Waltz" (from 1976's Let The Rough Side Drag) and the lovely "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" (from this past year's effort Love Filling Station).

The Canadian artist Ron Sexsmith was featured next. Another critical darling, Sexsmith has made no secret of his personal influences: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. His first effort on the show is a solo "Secret Heart," a Beatleesque ballad. He also shares a cover of Costello's "Everyday I Write The Book" and Dylan's "Ring Them Bells."

The young (for this stage) and talented Neko Case, another transplanted American who made her bones in Canada, delivers a grand spark to the show. Her charming performance of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me" proves to be a wonderful moment. She also contributes her own "Prison Girls," but Case's presence on the show was too minimal for this viewer's taste.

The inclusion of Sheryl Crow is somewhat of a mystery on the panel. She just did not fit the tenor of styles presented; perhaps the need for a "popular name" held some sway with the producers of the episode. Her selections are predictable: "If It Makes You Happy" and "Leaving Las Vegas." We never learn of her musical influences, contrary to the basic premise of the program.

While the interviews were minimal, this second episode of the season did provide a change-up with the inclusion of more musical performances than usual. It was great television just watching the body language of the singers while they were not performing: the subtle keeping of time with a head or foot or finger, or gentle swaying back and forth while engrossed in the lyric. The most touching moment may have been the tear rolling down Case's cheek while listening to Winchester's "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding."

THE SET LIST (note video links)
1. "Payday" (Elvis Costello and Jesse Winchester, vocals)
2. "Secret Heart" (Ron Sexsmith, solo guitar)
3. "If It Makes You Happy" (Sheryl Crow, lead guitar; Costello and Sexsmith, acoustic guitars)
4. "Don't Forget Me" (Neko Case, vocal; Steve Nieve, piano)
5. "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" (Winchester, solo guitar)
6. "Everyday I Write The Book" (Sexsmith & Costello, lead vocals; Winchester on harmony)
7. "Leaving Las Vegas" (Crow, vocal and acoustic guitar; Costello, electric guitar)
8. "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" (Winchester, vocal and guitar; Costello, harmony)
9. "Prison Girls" (Case, vocal; Nieve, keyboards; Costello, electric guitar)
10. "Ring Them Bells" (Sexsmith, lead vocal; All, harmony; Nieve, keyboards )