It was in the late 1990s when I first fell in love with the music of Sharon Jones. I was interning as Music Director at KAOS in Olympia, Wa. It was also the first year of my long running soul radio show. I specialized in vintage soul music with some newer stuff mixed in, but due to KAOS's much revered independent label music policy, it was often challenging for me to find new music to play on my show. Then came Sharon Jones.
For perspective, the state of soul music in 1996 was this: The charts were peppered with R Kelly and Babyface-produced/inspired breathy ballads, and one-off hip-hop-soul floor fillers like Ginuwine's "Pony" and BLACKstreet's "No Diggity". On the flip, appreciation of the "classic" soul sound of the 1960s was perhaps at an all-time low. The stars of yesteryear like Irma Thomas, Etta James, Otis Clay, and Solomon Burke were repackaged and marketed towards a "Blues" audience. There was a great divide between these two scenes.
That all began to change when New York City-based Desco Records came along that year, planting the seeds for what is now known as the Soul Revival movement. While the music released on this label was designed to sound like vintage late 60s/early 70s funky soul, the marketing targeted the young, hip-hop-loving college students who were eating up the "rare groove" market. An entirely different genre was born, doing what seemed impossible: Making the vintage soul sound relevant to a modern audience.
Desco (and its subsequent spin offs like Daptone & Soulfire) made serious waves in underground music markets. However, these labels would not have made such an impact without the commanding performances of their two most electrifying artists, Lee Fields and Miss Sharon Jones.
Sharon Jones, more than anyone else, carved out the pathway for the soul-revival scene that's currently thriving all around the world. Today, every town-of-size has at least one Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings-inspired band.
Sharon Jones was a fighter. She built this musical movement song by song, gig by gig, climbing up that hill a little at a time over years and years. Her success wasn't instant, but incremental. It was hard-won, and maybe against all odds, fighting the ever-changing trends of top 40 over two decades. She persisted to prove that she and this music were more than a passing fad. Then, even more unlikely, the success of Sharon Jones reopened the doors for those who came before her. People like Bettye Lavette, Barbara Lynn, and so many others would find a new generation of listeners whose minds were cracked wide open by the sledgehammer soul of Miss Sharon Jones. Her contribution as an ambassador of this music cannot be overstated.
My career as a DJ paralleled the singing career of Sharon Jones. I too carved my way, gig by gig, gradually building my local audience over two decades. None of it has come easy. Each tiny achievement has been a result of an enormous effort, but like Sharon Jones, my belief in the power of this music has spurred me on.
I'm proud to say I was one of the many DJs who first helped to introduce Sharon Jones to an audience. However, it is not lost on me that it is because of Sharon's efforts to build appreciation for this music, that I'm still able to grow my own audience today. Today and every day, I will honor the gift she left for us all. A fighter to the end. I will follow your path. Thank you, Sharon Jones.
In these incredibly turbulent days, tonight I share with you one of the best protest records from the George W Bush era.
I've been challenged by my dear friend DJ Larsupreme to post a supernatural song of the day, and while my time is tight today, I can't resist this challenge. You will indeed hear this wild r&b rocker tonight at the Kenton Club for my annual Halloween-themed dance party "I Put A Spell On You Again". This 45, recorded by the Philly-based Nite Riders, is representative of the sound of my recurring "Club Nitty Gritty" dance party.
The band is a bit of a "super group" comprised of established R&B journeyman like Melvin Smith, James "Doc" Starkes, Harry Van Walls, Harry Crafton, Joe Sewell, and Jimmy Johnson. These guys, together and separately, can be heard on seminal R&B records like "Looped", "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee", "Lovey Dovey" by the Clovers, The "Chicken & the Hawk" by Big Joe Turner,"Daddy Daddy" by Ruth Brown, etc. So if you're a fan of the early Atlantic records sound, you're likely to be really into this band, as I am.
This record was recorded in 1954, one of the most exciting years in American music with key developments in rock n roll and soul. This rambunctiousness of the record fits perfectly with the feel of 54. It is quite a STOMPER and I can't wait to spin it for the Halloween dancers tonight!
When I think of the Warwick sisters, I think of unparalleled sophisticated soul, and yet only one of them managed to become a household name. Dee Dee Warwick (born on this day in 1942) never achieved the superstar status of her sister Dionne, but it wasn't for a lack of talent, magnificent material, and glorious productions.
While the Warwick sisters' voices were no doubt of similar quality, their styles were vastly different. Dionne was a master of subtlety while Dee Dee wasn't afraid to ignite the fiery inferno of flaming DRAMA. She never overdid it though. She knew how to use her instrument and applied the gentle touch when appropriate. Just check out "Yours Until Tomorrow" or her country-soul recording of "She Kept On Talking" for a fine examples of that.
Dee Dee is one of my favorite soul singers and there's no lack of recordings I could write about today, but I chose to focus on her Grammy-nominated 1968 single, "Foolish Fool" produced by the legendary Ed Townsend. The true masterpiece recordings of the 1960s didn't just happen. It took a great many elements coming together in just the right way, and I guess that's why I find them such a marvel.
I suppose you could think of a great 45 single in the same way you view a fine film. Everything has to come together perfectly for the final product to become a great work. In a film it takes script, casting, directing, photography, acting, scene decoration, music, editing, etc etc etc. A pre-1970s music production was much the same.
For "Foolish Fool" to become such a stunning recording it needed a well-crafted song (by Ed Townsend), a delicious arrangement (by Rene Hall), skilled and creative musicians, and of course a vocalist who not only could SANG but who can interpret a lyric. In this case we have an incredibly sophisticated symphonic production that still manages to have a cookin' soulful groove. The instrumentation on this record is essential in making this the case.
The guitar in the intro sets the tone, letting the listener know in no uncertain terms, it is PURE SOUL that will be the driving force on this record. Sadly the guitar intro is drastically shortened in the single version of the song (I've posted the LP version here). It's almost like the guitar is taking you by the hand saying "Hey there, let me lead you to this really cool record you're about to hear." I also need to give a nod to those drums. I am such a SUCKER for the climactic use of drums in 1960s NY productions. They makes those records seem so much larger than life.
Give this record a listen and if you like it, consider listening to Dee Dee's entire Mercury/Blue Rock sessions collection. It's one of my favorites.
Today East Coast soul powerhouse Chuck Jackson turns 78 and in honor of his special day I would like to celebrate what I consider the a masterpiece of New York uptown soul. The record was released in 1962 by Wand Records and features a Leiber & Stoller composition and production which stars Chuck on vocals accompanied by the brilliant arrangement of Teacho Wiltshire. The unusual and imaginative orchestration and instrumentation is what really clinches it for me on this one:
- I still can't quite identify what is used for the signature percussion gimmick on this song but whatever it is, it's perfect for creating the feeling of stumbling into a fall.
- The xylophone portrays the singer's emotional unravelling as he struggles to grasp the reality of love lost.
- The back-up singers were utilized in an unusual way on this record (at least up to this point in early soul) providing a foundational layer of unnerving drama. Instead of doing a call and response, they're humming quietly and eerily in the background with the occasional louder punching "AH!"
It's no surprise that Teacho Wiltshire is involved with this masterpiece. He was the arranger on a lot of my favorite soul records:
The Exciters (Do Wah Ditty, Tell Him, There They Go)
Inez & Charlie Foxx (Baby Drop A Dime)
Isley Brothers (Twist & Shout)
The Lullabyes (You Touch Me)
The Shirelles (What Does a Girl Do)
Solomon Burke (The Price)
Tommy Hunt (I Am A Witness)
The Coasters (Wild One)
Baby Jane & the Rock-A-Byes(Half Deserted Street)
What IS surprising though is how little known he is when considering his contributions to early soul. Also surprising is that this record did not chart on the R&B charts. It's part of what I call the great Chuck Jackson break-up trilogy:
"I Wake Up Crying"
"I Keep Forgettin'"
"Two Stupid Feet"
and the bonus vindication song "Beg Me"
Everyone has their go-to singer for break-up music. Chuck Jackson has been my chosen soundtrack to heartbreak and recovery for over twenty years. Thanks for the memories!
Bobby Day, who was born on this day in 1930 in Fort Worth, is best known for one of the biggest hits of the early rock n roll era, "Rockin' Robin". In fact, when I was playing a wedding gig last summer I was about to spin a different Bobby Day record, when a little girl strolled up to my turntables, read the label on the record and said, "Bobby Day. He did "Rockin' Robin!" And by that measurement, I'd say Bobby Day is pretty well-known even to this day.
However, there's more to Bobby Day than "Rockin' Robin." For example, he was an original member of famous LA-based doo wop group The Hollywood Flames. As Bobby Day & the Satellites he wrote and recorded the original version of "Little Bitty Pretty One" which was an enormous smash hit for Thurston Harris. He co-wrote one of the most famous uptempo doo wop tunes "Buzz Buzz Buzz" recorded by the Hollywood Flames and he wrote and recorded the original version of "Over & Over" which is more famous by the Dave Clark 5 (I have yet to find a nice clean copy of Day's version). And if that's not enough, Day was also reportedly the first "Bob" in the famous soul duo Bob & Earl. Bobby Day is full of surprises!
My record of the day is one of those surprises. This rare 45 beautifully arranged by Jack Nitzche, is a rendition of the unofficial "cajun national anthem". The first cajun recording of this song goes back to 1929. The song gained popularity outside of the cajun community when it was adopted by country music artist Harry Choates in 1947 and it swiftly became a country music standard. An r&b guy like Bobby Day wasn't expected to record a song like this and THAT is what makes this cajun meets country meets r&b version of this song so very interesting to me. I love these vintage recordings that pushed boundaries and busted outside of boxes.
Give it a listen as you head into your holiday weekend. It's a great reminder of the beautiful things that can happen when we rebel against societal definitions of who we're supposed to be and what we're supposed to do
Happy 74th Birthday to Mitty Collier, one of the MIGHTIEST voices in Soul Music, who was born on this day in Birmingham, AL. She was discovered in 1959 when after touring as a gospel singer, she entered DJ Al Benson's Chicago talent contest. She was soon signed to Chess Records she recorded her signature song, her secular rendition of Rev James Cleavland's "I Had A Talk With God". In the pages of soul history Mitty's career has often been summed up in just that one record, but there's much more to Mitty Collier, including a handful of uptempo #45records that over the years have become soul dance party floor-filler classics.
My favorite will always be the B-Side to "I Had A Talk With My Man" soul bopper "Free Girl (In the Morning)" which I played at Club Nitty Gritty this past Friday. In this performance Mitty packs a powerful punch when she swings two fists of booming blues belts. Ba-BAM! This song hits you with it's celebratory feminist liberation, but it's also representative of what is incredibly common in soul music of the 1960s, a veiled reference to the struggle for Civil Rights.
In honor of the birthday of Shirley Owens Alston Reeves, founding member of the Shirelles, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend the Shirelles live LP "Spontaneous Combustion". So often music fans of the younger generations are left with only recordings, a handful of photos, and if we're lucky one or two video clips of artists from the past. These are the things that draw a picture of our perception of who these folks were in their hey day. The portrait we're left with is often incomplete.
Such is the case with a group like the Shirelles, in spite of them being hugely popular. Most of us know the Shirelles from their extremely polished sound on their recordings. Unlike artists of today like Beyonce and Kanye West for example, we don't get a glimpse of their personalities outside of their records. That's why this live LP, released slightly after the height of their popularity, is such a treat. We get to hear a more laid back and gritty side of the Shirelles, complete with entertaining stage banter. They joke around with each other, make references to their romantic involvements and personal lives, and they get to cut loose. In other words, we get to see them as real people. The entire album is worth a listen just for the experience of getting to know the members of the Shirelles a little bit better.
Over the years I've heard a lot of people refer to the music they like as "my music". People will stroll into a bar and come up to the DJ booth and say something like "I'm so glad you're playing MY music tonight!" Music, unlike any other art form, has a unique power to reach over enormous chasms to reach into our hearts and let us know that we're not alone in our emotional experiences and life struggles. I think that's why people feel so deeply connected to the music they love. It becomes so personal to the point that even if we didn't create it ourselves, it feels as if it belongs to us.
With that in mind, I'd like to send BIG birthday wishes to Gladys Knight whose voice guided me through the loneliness and confusion of my younger years. Gladys Knight for so many years was MY music.
I've had today's selection of the day in my head a lot lately as I've watched the recent turmoil that feels as though it's tearing people apart while at the same time binding us together in ways we haven't seen in decades. Though on the surface this song may not seem like a message song, here we find Gladys Knight reminding us that when humanity has trouble finding common ground, it's important to remember that one thing we all have in common is the need for LOVE. It's undeniable and has been heavy on my mind as of late - There needs to be a lot more LOVE, COMPASSION & CONNECTEDNESS going around in the world today.
Sondra "Blinky" Williams, who was born on this day in 1944 in Oakland, is probably best known for her duets with Edwin Starr and for being the female voice in the theme for the TV show Good Times. But to me she is best known for her killer funky-blues version of "Money" which proved to be quite popular on the Sugar Town dance floor in the depths of the Great Recession. Of course, with the wealth gap widening, the middle class disappearing, and the influx of wealthy people migrating to Portland and pushing out those less fortunate, I have a feeling this record will ring true to the struggling population of Portland for a long time to come. CRANK IT UP and so that the people in the shiny new condos can hear it.
Today is Cher's birthday. Lord knows I love me some Cher! I feel grateful that I grew up in the era when Cher was one to the top female movie stars, though at the time I didn't always appreciate her as much as I should have. She was one of the original scandalizers both in the tabloids and in her outfits. A true trailblazer in the category of shocking spectacles.
In appreciation of Cher and everything she is and was, I present to you my current favorite Cher record. Do I like this one because it sounds like Sonny and Cher doing their version of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood? Yes. It's as simple as that.
DJ Action Slacks
I'm excited to highlight some of my favorite records in a variety of genres (soul, R&B, classic country, rockabilly, oldies, garage rock, etc). These won't all necessarily be "dance" records per se. They will all be records that I believe deserve a special listen. I simply love good music, rare or not. Hopefully you will spend some time here and love music right along with me! Lets give this a shot!