Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Furry Lewis: Born to Blues

 

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and the unbelievable, actual surname of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the Depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him though Lewis was not a fan. No stranger to film and television, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88.

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. His “Judge Harsh” blues from Good Morning Judge, never fails to restore my cheer). People rely on the blues to chase away their own; when I play Furry Lewis, I don’t stay down too long. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby,” or the he way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony).  His recorded output is generally optimistic, and bring a smile, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

Covering in song the spectrum of life in all its colors—from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow—he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee.“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said.  And for that, I am most grateful that he was born to sing and play the blues.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video,

Now Playing: “Yes We Can Can”

Pointer-Sisters-first-album-coverThis is a repost in memory of Allen Toussaint passing today.

I was thinking about the Pointer Sisters today—The 1973 Pointer Sisters—and how their first album was one that rarely left my turntable that year. I was a child and mercifully I’ve held on to most of my records from then; curiously, this one’s  in pretty good condition—too good I’d say, to have belonged to a kid—which leads me to believe it’s not my original. Back then, I was in the habit of marking all my LP records with a DYMO tape sticker that said DENISE. Just like that, all caps, white letters on orange or green, sometimes red or blue though rarely yellow. But because the DYMO tape or any evidence of having been stuck by DYMO tape is missing (I like typing DYMO), I’m thinking the copy I’m holding of the Pointer Sisters’ self titled album on the Blue Thumb label was at some point reacquisitioned, between 1973 and now.

It’s uncharacteristic of me not to know exactly when I came by a record; that’s just how it is with people who collect records (or if you collect anything, you know what I’m talking about). Obtaining the object is part of its memory, which I find is selective and often obscured by all kinds of clouds and things. But records are the proverbial madeleine that take us back to the land that time (and sometimes I) forgot; songs may come and go, but it’s the record that helps me remember.

Opening the gatefold sleeve today, I recalled a few things: How as a girl, I preferred the portraits on the outer sleeve to the stylized inner sleeve which I bitterly critiqued as “staged.” The outer sleeve was real, or so I thought, not knowing photos were taken at a thing called a photo shoot, set up by a photographer (H.B. Greene according to the sleeve notes) who has an assistant. Preferring the sepia-toned “authentic” 1940s styling on the outer sleeve to the glossy, deco design on the inside, I’d pegged the Pointers as down-to-earth, regular people, not Hollywood types; they were after all local, from Oakland. This is how it should be, them living in a Victorian-styled house like the one pictured on the cover,  them dressed in ’40s casual, just as they would everyday.  I never talked to a single other kid about The Pointer Sisters first album or what they wore or how they wore it, I just know I’d still give my right arm for a dress just like the one June is wearing in the photo, perfect as it is in every way. Anyone who remembers these things like I do will tell you that baby June, the youngest Pointer, had the style thing completely locked-up. Such a fashion icon she was, it’s a wonder I didn’t take to wearing a turban like she did, though I think I intuited it probably wouldn’t go over very well at school. Where did a child obtain a turban anyway?

As for the music, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Forty years later, we all know everything about everything and all I’ve got is my stale madeleine from the early ’70s and my Pointer Sisters reverie. The first time I heard the Willie Dixon song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” it was not performed by Etta James; rather, it was right there in my bedroom with the yellow floral wallpaper, at the end of side two of The Pointer Sisters.  For sure, that was also the first time I ever saw the name A. Toussaint on a writing credit.  Allen Toussaint is of course a legend of New Orleans piano style and the songwriting giant who wrote the album’s opener, “Yes We Can Can.”  Why do I waste my breath? You knew that. Heck, even I knew as a small fry that Lee Dorsey was known for doing the song first; he’d been around the prior decade with “Ya Ya.”  I knew that one by heart for reasons I can’t possibly relay right now without getting way off course. Put it this way: “It may sound funny but I don’t believe she’s coming home” rung some bells for me.  I also liked the smooth vocals in “Jada,” one of the songs the Sisters themselves are partially credited with writing.  But really, what I was most concerned with in 1973 wasn’t the music but in getting hold of some old plastic fruit, likely the cherries from the bowl at my great-grandmother’s house, so I could fashion a bunch into a corsage that I could wear on the lapel of my Eisenhower jacket from Lerner’s, to be worn with some wide-bell high-waist pants and platform sandals. Pointer Sisters style, for real.

In closing, I was going to say I don’t remember what we did without You Tube but that would be a big fat lie. I remember perfectly well what we did and that was, we’d watch really bad video tapes that were hard to store and even harder to find on shelves, usually caked with dust. Once we got the tape in the VCR it had to be fast forwarded and rewound so many times, so maybe, just maybe you could find that segment of Soul Train you were looking for but started to regret you ever taped in the first place, since if you hadn’t taped it, you wouldn’t be messing around with a stupid remote control that never worked because the battery was like 10 years old to begin with.  Recalling this foolishness, I am wasting my own time and now yours, when all I mean to say is,  just try to imagine how I felt when I found this clip of “Yes We Can Can” today, because I can’t possibly describe the feeling of joy, such joy—not in 250 words or less I couldn’t—though I will add this:  If there is one song to have had burned into your consciousness, to have been etched onto your soul, and sent with you on your way into the world, this one isn’t a bad one to have to be. Bless you, Mr. Allen Toussaint and Ms. Pointers, Anita, Ruth, Bonnie, and June. Thank you for the record—and for my memories.  Great gosh all mighty.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Obituary, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

Rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political. and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

The Staple Singers: The Long March on Freedom’s Highway

StapleSinger_cover-450x450In April of 1965, just weeks after the historic marches for voting rights across Alabama, the Staple Singers convened at a South Side Chicago church for a service dedicated to the marchers. The resulting live album, Freedom Highway, has since become a recorded classic, merging soul-solid messages and spirit-rising music. Long out of print, it was reissued in an expanded edition this week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, though its gospel-sung dreams of justice for all are yet to be won.  Read my full review at Blurt online.

Filed under: Civil Rights, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Gospel, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Furry Lewis Born Today, 1893

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and God-given name of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him and Lewis hated it (it crossed some lines). He appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88. His “Judge Harsh” blues made a real impression on me in 2004 (The Year of Our Injustice) which was also around the time Fat Possum released Good Morning Judge (there are plenty of other Lewis titles available but I like that one).

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. Listen for the way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby”).  His outlook was generally optimistic, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said. Personally, I rely on his blues to chase away my own. When I play Furry Lewis, I find I just can’t stay down too long. Covering the spectrum of life in his songs, from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow, he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee. And it’s for that, I thank him most of all.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , , , , , ,

What Makes A Legend: Darlene Love

Classic Track: “He’s A Rebel”

Born Darlene Wright in Hawthorne, California, and christened Love by Phil Spector, Darlene was a member of the vocal group the Blossoms and an A-list singer on the talented but wily producer’s sessions. Knowing in his bones the Gene Pitney song “He’s a Rebel” would be a hit,  instead of crediting the Blossoms, Spector rushed it out as the Crystals who were signed to his Philles label. Love was also the secret weapon on the Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans singles, “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts”, and “Not Too Young to Get Married.” Her unmistakable tone with no-nonsense, girl group attitude has backed-up Elvis (she and the Blossoms were part of the ’68 comeback special), Sonny and Cher, Papa John Phillips, Little Steven Van Zandt and his boss, Bruce Springsteen.

Career Highs: We’d have to ask her what she thought of singing on Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones” or if her turns as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies were thrills to her, but we loved them. Maybe her heart sang when she headlined her own one-woman show, Portrait of a Singer, or when she went to Broadway as Motormouth Mabel in the musical adaptation of  the John Waters story, Hairspray.

Career Low: Going uncredited on all the Spector productions (she eventually won a lawsuit that helped her collect on some unpaid royalties).

Essential Listening: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the song for which she’s probably best known outside of “He’s A Rebel”;  you can also hear her every year as background vocalist on the seasonal hit, “The Monster Mash.”  “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” are Love’s other great shots in the spotlight.  Her hits are all compiled on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love and Da Do Ron Ron: The Very Best of the Crystals, issued by Sony/Legacy Recordings.

And if you like that you’ll like: “Lord, If You’re A Woman” (“give a sister a hand”), tells a story about someone who’s been had and if you have been, you’ll say amen.

What She’s Doing Now: Darlene Love took her rightful place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame when she was inducted on March 14, 2011. On March 2, 2014, she accompanied director Morgan Neville onstage at the Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the lives of background vocalists. As part of her acceptance speech, Love sang a portion of the Gospel classic, “His Eye on the Sparrow,” in acknowledgement of how music and faith carried her through the hard times.

Watch the action: Love With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Gospel, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, What Makes A Legend, , , , , , , , , , ,

Remembering Mike Bloomfield

photo by Mike-Shea

Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981

Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.

So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?

(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, film, Interview, new article, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Happy Birthday Etta James

Etta-James2Today is the birthday of the great R&B singer, performer and songwriter, Etta James. Californian by birth, Jamesetta Hawkins entered this world on January 25, 1938, the child of a wayward mother and a father she liked to say was the pool player, Minnesota Fats (her belief was never exactly disproved). Shipped off to live with relatives who could better care for her in San Francisco’s Fillmore District (“The Harlem of the West”), she was discovered and rechristened Etta James by Greek-American Johnny Otis. Both Otis and James created identities as specifically California blues artists that they grew into international followings. Together they cut “Roll With Me, Henry” (an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and a few more sides before she left Modern Records for her ‘60s tenure with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, she was an inspiration to drag queens (the disco artist Sylvester learned how to party in her apartment), rock’n’rollers (most famously Janis Joplin) and anyone with a pair of ears. Etta herself was at one time inspired by the charismatic speaking of Malcolm X; she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean from drugs (it was a battle she waged for the better part of her life).  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  ”I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on her friend Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick (she lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive). Often sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and thrive. She received awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She also ultimately got to grips with her addictions. First Lady of the Blues, James passed away a few days shy of her 74th birthday in January of 2012. We miss you Etta James:  The blues just ain’t the same without you.

Above, “I’d Rather Go Blind” was written by Ellington Jordan and James, and is among her most beloved recordings. Below, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to James at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Keys was also born on January 25, as was the pre-war Tennessee bluesman, Sleepy John Estes.
Read more about Etta James and Alicia Keys in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Keep On Pushing, Malcolm X, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Soul, video, , , , , , ,

This Business of Music is a Buzzkiller

Injustice in the music business is one of the themes shared by three summer music documentaries now playing in theaters or on demand. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me all concern the lives of musicians who did not reap the benefits of success their superstar counterparts or even their industry’s executives enjoy. These tales of a typically unkind, fickle and often unethical music business are told far too often:  There is of course a long tradition of broke and hungry blues singers and ripped-off rock’n’rollers; perhaps most famous are the Funk Brothers, creators of the Motown sound, whose untold history became Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the blueprint for these kind of behind the veil stories. And yet, the background vocalists of Twenty Feet… and the musicians of the ironically named ‘70s bands, Death and Big Star, though largely overlooked, unsung, and often underpaid themselves, also delivered life-giving music of lasting value—music far more focused and accomplished than many of their more successful name brand peers.

Much to the younger generation of musicians in their family’s delight, the Hackney brothers co-created punk rock in early ‘70s Detroit.  A Band Called Death is their story, as told by surviving brothers Bobby and Dannis, with credit due to brother David for the vision. Inspired by their minister dad’s insistence they watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the boys formed a band; as rock evolved, so did their sound. David aimed to combine the guitar chords of Pete Townshend of the Who with the leads of  Jimi Hendrix. With Bobby’s vocals and bass, and Dannis’ agility on drums central to the crunch, David’s idea came into focus, though it had also been shaped by forces much stranger than spine-chilling rock’n’roll.  Impacted by the accidental death of their father, David’s idea—a hard rock threesome named Death with a triangular mind-body-spirit logo was an entire  concept, though it turned out to be a bit much for listeners to metabolize in the post-‘60s hour of segregated rock and soul.  It is generally agreed among band and family, record industry personnel and public perception that David’s extreme construct did the band no favors, particularly when they were very close to getting a record deal with Clive Davis and David wouldn’t budge. “First you let them change your name and then…” You may as well surrender your soul is the implication, and there is truth in those words. Though he and his brothers’ band were consigned to the rare and forgotten records rack for 30 years, David’s vision, that Death would one day be poplar after he was gone, turned out to be prophecy. A Band Called Death lets that story unfold, as it unleashes the power and excitement of the music, highlighting its timelessness and virtuosity. For non-believers, their pure rock’n’roll single, “Keep on Knocking,” may be the convincer:  I never tire of it and could happily spin it over and over and over again.

If there is such a thing as rock justice, revived career status may also be in the balance for some of the singers profiled in Twenty Feet From Stardom, a look at the ladies (and one man) who sing the background vocals to the soundtrack of your life.  To their tremendous credit, director Morgan Neville and producer and industry vet Gil Friesen don’t flinch from the cruelty of the record business, a model that has historically cheated its true talent while rewarding mediocre copycats. The film debuted at the Sundance Festival and screened earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is told by the vocalists Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, their contemporary counterparts, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill,  and the musicians they sing for (Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger). With differing degrees of yearning for the spotlight, each woman shares her own tale of what it was like to sing behind Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson and in the case of Love, for producer Phil Spector (now serving a prison sentence for murder).  Both Fischer and Lennear, emerge as the pair who crave little more than what they have: Fischer’s devoted to her gift and married to the music and a life on a road. Lennear stepped back and became a teacher, though as a result of the film and revisiting her years alongside George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Ike and Tina Turmer, she’s been inspired to reclaim her place in the spotlight.  Here’s her version of the Beatles song, “Let It Be.”

Perhaps most depressing in this downbeat trio of tales is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a story of unrequited loves and life let downs. Chris Bell, who alongside Alex Chilton, was a principle songwriter on the Memphis group’s first album, left the fold under what the film portrays as mysterious circumstances. What’s clear however, is that he was touched by substance abuse, and sexual and religious confusion, and all the troubles conspired to takeaway his life at the cursed rock’n’roll age of 27. It didn’t help that Big Star’s record label, Ardent, was affiliated with Stax, though while giants of the soul industry were experiencing business and reorganization troubles just as they crossed the bridge toward releasing rock’n’roll records. And then there is Chilton, a vocal talent with qualities so chameleon-like, and a reticence to be interviewed, that he’s hard to pin down. The teenaged soul singer of “The Letter” shifted gears in Big Star, and yet again in his post-band, punkish years; he passed away in 2010 before the completion of the film, and his presence in it is confined to audio and performance clips.  It would’ve been interesting to hear what he might say of his former band from a 60-year-old’s vantage point, but without him or Bell to speak for themselves, the real story of Big Star largely remains a mystery, to be filed under bands that never made it, but could have, if only the stars had aligned in their favor. Though their story is grim, their recording legacy is the prize: “The Ballad of El Goodo” from #1 Record, is a collaborative effort between Chilton and Bell, a power-pop freedom song:

Though I would not characterize any one of these music documentaries as uplifting, within the frames of each reel, and certainly within the individual stories, there are flashes of reverence, bright spots of humor, and in all cases, impeccable music. There is no shortage of stories like these, ready to unspool and cast the music business as it was once known in its true, unflattering light.  I don’t want to say I’m happy that everyone can see for themselves the hit parade of human sacrifice, left in the wake of what it takes to create superstar entertainment for the masses. Nor do I delight in the music industry’s complete and total rupture.  But it’s no doubt valuable for music consumers, just like consumers of other goods, to know a little bit more about what goes into the making of product they love so much. The music business is a killer, with very little to do with the art of its creators. Certainly it has shown little to no compassion for the health and welfare of musicians, without whom, there would be no primary product.  Perhaps it’s best we no longer fool ourselves into thinking that talent and excellence are qualifications for success, no matter what business we may find ourselves. The artist or worker without a killer instinct, will need to make a choice: Take a backseat willingly, or be content, to be left standing in the shadows.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Now Playing, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, , , , , , , ,

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