Author Archives: Joe

Walk On By Part 2

I just can’t get over losin’ you
And so if I seem, broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left

Thanks to a wonderful teacher in high school, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the entire Stax singles catalog almost immediately upon becoming interested in 60’s R+B. I went from one cd, Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 to The Complete Stax Singles 1959-1968. I think a lot of folks can hand something this comprehensive to a kid nowadays, off a hard drive, or loaded onto a 3000gb ipod, and they will take it gladly. Though maybe not listen to it. My teacher said, “Here, write a report on it, give it back in two weeks.” Nine discs, about 250 songs, along with a great huge book that came with the set. I devoured the lot. I can still recall hearing Macy Skipper or Eddie Floyd for the first time. Flipping out over Jeanne & the Darlings and Carla Thomas.

The story of a little re-purposed movie theater with a record shop in the front and a studio in the back, where neighborhood kids would come in and make their dreams come true became something close to a fairy tale for me, and I would regale friends about Memphis’ belle epoque. Each player seemed to fulfill some role in the Stax castle, with Rufus Thomas serving as the wizened Shakespearean court jester with a beautiful daughter, William Bell the sad-hearted knight errant, Johnny Taylor the cad, Booker T. & the MG’s standing sentry over the proceedings, ready at a moment’s notice to jump into action, and label owner Jim Stewart running around like Jimmy Stewart in a screwball comedy (“Whoa, we got a goldmine over here!”). At the heart of this myth was its true hero, Otis Redding: a figure so benevolent that he held the entire place together through his kind demeanor and his ability to touch any person to the core with his voice alone. Here was a guy who used lyrics his wife wrote to create one of the greatest breakup songs ever recorded, who was known to throw a song out after the third take because it wasn’t raw enough, who sang a song to kids about staying in school. I remember being shocked while reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music when he mentions that Redding actually got upset at Sam and Dave for getting the crowd too riled up before he took the stage. It was, and still is, the only negative thing I have ever heard about Otis Redding.

Of course this version of events is too perfect to be entirely true, and it ends with a crushing blow. That happens on the evening of December 9, 1967, when Otis, his manager and four members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, are killed in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Besides the posthumous release of Otis’ biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the coda of this tale is sung in not one but two other songs, “A Tribute To A King” by William Bell, and “Otis, Sleep On” by Redding’s protoge Arthur Conley. The moment I had always thought of as perhaps the most fitting end to Otis’ story is on the last song he recorded “The Happy Song (Dum Dum),” when he laughs his way through the line:

You oughtta see my baby’s face/ she just grins grins grins…

Otis Redding – The Happy Song (Dum Dum)

And right there my concrete sense of Stax ends. Black and White photos turn to that gritty 70’s Brown and Yellow. Al Bell makes some highly-profitable but not-so friendly moves. Isaac Hayes stops writing music for others and starts making music for himself,

and this

turns into this

There I left it, and really have ever since. When I hear about the great Stax artists of the 70’s — Hayes, The Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram — I enjoy ’em, but they don’t stir my heart. When I recently watched Mel Stuart’s excellent 1973 documentary, WattStax, I found myself searching the artists’ faces for something of the past. A sheepish grin over all the attention, maybe? An insular attitude amongst the musicians? No dice. There is a powerful composure and professionalism throughout the all the performances. Even Rufus Thomas pulls off some artful crowd control after folks start rushing the field to get closer to the stage. And when Bar-Kays sax player Harvey “Joe” Henderson says, “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude,” he means that he and his bandmates have earned it.

I guess I’m saying that as much as I like the 70’s stuff (and LOVE this performance of “Son of Shaft”),  I don’t pay too much attention.

All of this as a lengthy defense for the indefensible crime of misattribution* by yours truly. In my last post I indulged deeply in the fantasy of a Stax that never existed.

In my mind, Isaac Hayes was backed up by Booker T. & the MG’s in one final late-night jam, as he recorded one of the greatest soul masterpieces of all time: “Walk On By.” But, as my fact-checkin’ cuz Tim points out in the comments:

I hate to burst your bubble, but the MGs are not on “Walk on By”. Booker had just left or was soon to leave Stax, Cropper left soon after this too. That’s The Bar-Kays.

The Bar-Kays. Well, yes and no. The Bar-Kays and Harold Beane on lead guitar. Not Charles “Skip” Pitts who plays wah-wah on Shaft, or regular Bar-Kays guitarist Michael Toles, who plays rhythm guitar on “Walk on By” and on Shaft, and who later became part of Hayes’ touring group, and certainly not Steve Cropper. It is indeed Hayes on keyboard, not Booker T. That fanatic, exhausted drumming is courtesy of the Bar-Kays’ Willie Hall, not my hero Al Jackson Jr. The strings and horns, it turns out, were outsourced to Detroit, with members of the Detroit Symphony playing on violin. Definitely not the Memphis Horns, as I had always assumed. Here is how Marvell Thomas, son of Rufus, piano player and Co-Producer of Hot Buttered Soul tells the story of Beane’s playing to music historian Bill Dahl:

“The guitar solo was not something that was planned on front end,” recalled Thomas. “It was like, ‘Well why not?’ We just stretched out and let it go. When you get in the middle of it, you just kind of ride with it until it stops.”**

And that’s where I’m sort of left too. If I didn’t know a lot of this stuff, especially the bit about Detroit, I think I’d be a lot happier. And if I didn’t talk about it, the song may even be better. The fact that the fantasy of Stax is is impossible is something I’ve probably always known. I’m sure Otis Redding was secretly a shoplifter, William Bell was fiercely confident, and the works of Booker T. are actually by a different man with the same name. The golden age of Stax perseveres not through its anecdotal history, but by the immense, emotional scope of the music, and the joy which one inevitably feels while listening.

And so, I think I’d prefer to let the misinformation of the previous post stand. It’s a reverie brought about by late night radio– a truth that’s undeniable. Plus, everybody knows advice that was given up for free…lots of details to discern. Lots of details.

*This word, by the way, being the ultimate in onomotoseeia.

**This quote, and much of the personnel information comes from AllMusic and the Concord Music Group website, which oversaw the 2009 reissue of Hot Buttered Soul.

Walk On By

I’ve been digging into the Stax again lately and am just floored by Steve Cropper’s versatility and style as a guitarist. His stuff on ANY given Otis Redding song would be the high-water mark for any other session musician’s career.

Not that he was just a session musician, mind you. Hardly a journeyman, Cropper stuck around the old theater on East McLemore Ave. from his teens in the early 60’s and just past its major upheaval in the 1970’s. He was a Mar-Key, an MG, and later a Blues Brother. But Steve Cropper would never allow you to mistake him for anyone else (though occasional Steven Seagal comparisons are warranted). Take “Let Me Come On Home” from 1967.

Otis Redding – Let Me Come On Home

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Featuring the kind of straight-fingered piano plink that makes white-haired RZA scratch his chin, the song manages to be one of those great and rare moments in 60’s soul music where the singer allows himself to get caught up–and ultimately lost–in the band’s sound. You can’t blame Otis, either. The horns are so tight, Booker T. and Al Jackson are in a mind-meld, and whenever Cropper is playing, you hear Otis just back right off. The rumor is that Otis Redding was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and in this case, the band is just too good to sing over.

Cropper’s ability to transition his playing early on from the style of The Ventures, John Barry or Dick Dale, to someone who could later easily play on a Meters or Funkadelic track–all without losing his trademark twang–is also remarkable.

And, he plays on Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By

I’m going to say that every other version of this song pisses me off. Even the shortened version of the Hayes song. To really appreciate it, you’ve got to hear it all the way through, allowing for the brutal pauses where every instrument has its say before Mr. Hayes sings his first word — over two minutes into the track. For a songwriter famed up to this point in his career for writing songs with an almost overwhelming sense of urgency (hey, the guy wrote a #1 song about getting off the toilet), I think giving the time to explore words he appreciates with the help of an outstanding backing band can certainly be called a turning point.

Can we go back in time for a moment?

Isaac Hayes wrote over 200 songs with partner Dave Porter in the mid-1960’s at Stax before breaking up the partnership to focus on his solo career. Their tunes were dependably great and a “Hayes/Porter” on a 45 was a stamp of approval. For one thing, they write one hell of an intro (pay attention Mr. Rza):

Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

But beyond that, I think they appreciated who they were writing for. As the above song easily proves, these guys could write and arrange some highly refined music for the right artists. But where Sam & Dave were concerned, they hardly wanted to sound refined or anything else. Sam Moore and Dave Prater sang intense, proud and raw music, which needed no stylistic buffers to get their point across. And with songs like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” or “I Thank You,” Hayes and Porter offer no buffers.

How great then for Hayes, to have the opportunity to explore a highly-refined song, by two highly-refined songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), written originally for a very classy lady (one Dione Warwick).

Ok, forward in time to mid-1969

Now I guess that around the time Isaac Hayes recorded “Walk On By” for his album Hot Buttered Soul, things were in a bit of upheaval at Stax records. Everyone was still mourning the death of label superstar Otis Redding (and to tell you the truth, I’m still mourning him too), control of the label had been not-too-kindly handed over by label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to powerful businessman Al Bell, and the entire Stax back catalog had been sold to Atlantic Records in a distribution deal. So, Al Bell ordered that 27 records and 30 singles come out, all in Mid-1969.

Hot Buttered Soul was not Hayes’ first solo record. Presenting Isaac Hayes had come out in 1968 on Stax at Bell’s urging and had sold poorly. The opening track, “Precious, Precious”, though, had been cut down from a lengthy 18 minutes of tape, and thus begins Hayes’ mature exploration of songs, musicianship, and pushing past the 3-minute boundary of radio-friendly music. This is how Hayes described the process in the liner notes to his 2005 greatest hits album Ultimate Isaac Hayes (Can You Dig It?):

“What it was, was the real me…I mean, OK, the real me had written those other songs [‘Soul Man,’ ‘Hold On I’m Comin’,’ etc.], but they were being written for other people. As for me wanting to express myself as an artist, that’s what Hot Buttered Soul was. Although I was a songwriter, there were some songs that I loved, that really touched me. Came the opportunity, I wanted to record these tunes. I wanted to do them the way that I wanted to do them. I took them apart, dissected them, and put them back together and made them my personal tunes. I took creative license to do that. By doing them my way, it almost made them like totally different songs all over again.”

Hot Buttered Soul has 4 songs. The longest, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” clocks in at 18 minutes. Of course, the first half of the song features an elaborate spoken backstory. Here is how Hayes explained the song to National Public Radio:

“The rap came out of the necessity to communicate. There’s a local club in Memphis, primarily black, called The Tiki Club. One day there I heard this song by Glen Campbell – ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this song is great, this man must really love this woman.’ I ran down to the studio and told them about the song, and they said ‘yeah, yeah.’ They didn’t feel what I felt, I thought maybe they weren’t getting it. The Bar-Kays were playing the Tiki Club a few days later, so I told them to learn the song and that I would sit in. I told them to keep cycling the first chord, and I started talking, just telling the story about what could have happened to cause this man to leave. Halfway through the song, conversations started to subside, and by the time I finished the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Man, Glen Campbell’s version is beautiful, but the video isn’t what you’d call heavy soul:

Hayes takes this and “Walk On By” and does more than dissect them, he hears them. In the same way Gram Parsons does, when he records William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with the Byrds, or Dan Penn’s “Dark End Of The Street.” I think that Isaac Hayes is saying that in 1969 there were two sides of the aisle–Black Music and White Music–and if you tried to get someone to hear a song from the other side of the aisle, they would say ‘yeah, yeah’ but they wouldn’t want to do anything with it.

I find it funny that if you google ‘Isaac Hayes, By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ you’re going to see words like ‘soulful’ and ‘erotic’, and without his name, you don’t get any description of the song at all, just that it’s sung by Glen Campbell and that it’s a #1 hit.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So, we’re 7 & 1/2 minutes into “Walk On By,” and we know where this thing is going. Isaac has introduced a flute run after each time he and the ladies say “walk on” at around 6:30.  That run gets picked up by the rest of the brass and a few strings at 7:30, just as Hayes bows out. The brass fades out by about 8:20 and the strings fully take over. Fully, I should say, with the exception of that guitar player. Steve Cropper is so insistent that his sound come out alongside the strings that they start to fade in and out. Then, incredibly, they bow out entirely at about 9:12, just as Booker T lays it all on the table. It’s as if they’re saying “This is not the Love Unlimited Orchestra, We’re BOOKER T. & THE MG’s!” It’s 11:10 and Al Jackson Jr. is flipping the fuck out! Cropper is playing all sorts of bizarre angular chops and the band is totally together. The 70’s, Gamble and Huff, and all sorts of fluffy R&B shit may be right around the corner, but for a couple of minutes at the end of an impossibly long and perfect song, the Stax house band reigns, and the bandleader is wise enough to get out of their way.

House Appropriations

Suit by Nudie

Why does our music culture tend to be in love with its own reflection? Is there any song that’s going to be left alone without reinterpretation? Not that I mind this. Just an observation. Hip hop, sampling and the never-ending remix pop into one’s mind first. 51 versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, answer songs, and live covers made to sound like samples often cause me to stand up and take notice. And Irreverent folkie covers, collage mashups, and jazz vocalist “interpretations” are all well and good. But the songs I like the best are those that manage to eak out the very knowability of a tune as an entity, by taking it’s fame and doing something altogether different–dare I say disrespectful–with it. As such, I have begun to keep a log of those songs which manage to snatch the essence of the things.

Day One: Pierre Menard, Author of the Sweetheart

The seminal country album by the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is dominated by the earnest, plaintive presence of singer Gram Parsons, who stayed with the band for this one album before moving on to greener pastures. Here’s an account from The Adios Lounge of how that all went down:

The Byrds played South Africa in July without Gram Parsons, who decided that shooting smack with Keith Richards was better than playing segregated Johannesburg, so he essentially fired himself. While GP’s political motives were undoubtedly more expedient than heartfelt, to his credit he flew the coop on a tour that was, by all accounts, “Custer-esque.” Back on home turf … and without the motivating force behind their just-released album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo … Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman recruited Clarence White into The Byrds, then fired drummer, Kevin Kelley, and replaced him with … Gene Parsons. Hillman then reconciled with Gram, left The Byrds, and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. GP and Hillman then asked White and Gene Parsons (no relation) to join the Burritos, but the new Byrds, upon deeper reflection, decided to remain new Byrds. Are you getting all this?!?!

Well. So. Anyways the music. The album, while it somehow manages to feel very cohesive, has songs from all over the place. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Louvin Brothers cover, two Dylan covers (including one where Roger McGuinn screws up the lyrics, only to get called on it by Dylan in a later version of the song), a Merle Haggard tune, a traditional, an amazing William Bell cover, and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Then there are the Parsons originals. I think a lot of folks go right for the jugular and get all weepie over his sentimental ballad, “Hickory Wind,” and so did I. That is, until I heard a Parsons-only vocal version of the tune that follows it on the album, “One Hundred Years From Now.”

The Byrds – One Hundred Years from Now (Rehearsal)

This tune is an amazing, angst-ridden diatribe against what people called, in 1968 terms, “the establishment”. While Parsons desires–with a certain amount of disdain–that people look beyond the day-to-day in order to see what really matters, he does tend to blame the powers that be for keeping him from his gal:

One hundred from this day
Will the people still feel this way
Still say the things that they’re saying right now.
Everyone said I’d hurt you
They said that I’d desert you
If I go away
You know I’m gonna get back somehow.

Well, in the Summer of 2008, Dr. Dog Singer Toby Leaman takes a different approach:

Dr. Dog – 100 Years

What’s so amazing about this song is its attempt not merely to channel the the spirit of The Byrds tune, but rather to use the same simple lyric and surround it with all things that we now tend to associate with country- and folk-rock or the 1960’s: lush harmonies, tack piano, rock drums, and well, Gram Parsons. But where GP tries to reassure his lover and tell her that it’ll all balance out in the end, Leaman takes responsibility for the space between them, and rather seems to be offering a promise to himself:

When I look back on what I done
‘Bout a hundred years from now
I’m gonna cry myself to sleep at night
If somebody shows me how.
And when I get off Tennybrook Farm
‘Bout a hundred years from now,
I’m gonna marry you out of common sense
And get out from behind this plough.

Perhaps these two songs have nothing to do with one another. Leaman may have never heard of Gram Parsons or Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons may be his unknown hero, known by his deeds and accomplishments rather than his name. Where the passage of time has a more literal meaning to a frustrated lover in 1968, to a lonesome ploughman, 100 years is just the space between now and the end of the workday.

An Alternate Soundtrack to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

What’s the use of a digital-only soundtrack if there is only one? Here I’ve re-imagined key moments of the film and paired them up with their proper musical equivalents. Tho’ I do like Charles Trenet quite a bit too.

School of Language – Rockist Part 1
Metallica – One
Alice In Chains – Man In The Box
Death Cab For Cutie – Underwater
(smog) – Bathysphere
The Magnetic Fields – Deep Sea Diving Suit
Clarence Carter – Strokin’

I’m Such A Jerk / Sewn To The Sky

41hzhj9fqkl_aa240_.jpgI was staying up late at a friend’s house one night in high school and listening to music on some big headphones.  It was one of those cold Summer nights in Denver where you find yourself shivering in the wrong clothes. My friend had long since fallen asleep and I was sitting on the floor, turning the volume up more with each song. I must have seen something outside on the street, because I stood up really fast to look outside. When I did, the jack came out of the stereo and for five or six fumbling seconds everyone in my friend’s house got to hear Morphine’s “I’m Free Now”.  It was probably just a squirrel.

Morphine – I’m Free Now

41caf1x7mdl_aa240_.jpgLong after the fact, I think about that as the quintessential late night experience–the cold, the vague feeling of getting away with something just for being up when no one else is–with really the perfect song as the soundtrack. If were to be anachronistic in telling the tale though, I might say the song was Smog’s “Teenage Spaceship.” Floating around the neighborhood without ever having to leave the floor. But that’s a bit like listening to “In The Year 2525” in the year 2525 or actually trying to stomach Rye just because Don MacLean talks about it.  What made that night great was that it happened when it did, and that Cure For Pain was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.

Smog – Teenage Spaceship

dum. da-dum ch!

phlp4006.jpg

Obviously, there are many many more tracks that begin with this iconic drumbeat. I just haven’t found them yet. If you happen to know more, let me know, yeah?

The Ronettes – Be My Baby

I’m pretty sure that any artist who is using “the beat” in their song nowadays is referencing this tune. Its fun to know that within four or five seconds you can conjure so many images and ideas.

Tracy Dey – I Won’t Tell

THE standout track from the excellent “One Kiss Can Lead To Another” box set. Anyone who can scream “I WON’T TELL!” so loudly can obviously be trusted. The story, a sort of Hayley-Mills-being-bad romp involves some brothers and sisters not being too nice to each other. The outro gives the listener exactly what they want: just a few more seconds of bliss. What came first, this or the Beach Boys’ “Hang On To Your Ego?”

The Magnetic Fields – When You Were My Baby

The ghost of Merritt & vocalist Susan Anway’s “The Wayward Bus” lingers when I listen to any girl group. Were songs from this genre always infused with such pathos, or am I just doomed to hear it the way Stephin did from now on?

Carla Thomas – What A Fool I’ve Been

I guess I always take this singer for granted. Her vocals on the verses in particular are really powerful.

The Twinkle – Terry

Originally thought too perverse to be played on British airwaves, this song really isn’t too different in content from J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss.” C’mon, it’s sweet! The cheating part is just, you know, topical!

Bat For Lashes – What’s A Girl To Do?

Can this song really exist without it’s eerie video? The answer is yes. While Natasha Khan certainly benefits from being cast as Donnie Darko’s cousin from Brighton, the story rivals any told in the girl group canon. And that scary intro! I guess dumping someone is a bit like taking a walk in the graveyard.

Cinderella – Please Don’t Wake Me

Not that Cinderella.

The Satisfactions – Daddy You Gotta Let Him In

If I were this girl’s dad, I’d be pretty convinced of here case. That is, until she starts channeling the spirit of Big Mama Thornton on the chorus, talking about “one of Hell’s Angels!” Sorry kid, the front door’s got a date with The Club tonight.

The Magnetic Fields – The Saddest Story Ever Told

“You’ll see the world/ Diving for a pearl you’ll never find/ And then we’ll finally grow old/ The saddest story ever told”

Au Revoir Simone – A Violent Yet Flammable World

It took me a long time to like this band. Being shallow, I was bothered by the fact that their album cover looks like the front of the JCrew Fall Collection. But, being just as shallow, it occurred to me one day that the band’s name is culled from the scene in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” where Texas Diner girl Simone is waving farewell to Pee Wee from the bus, a la “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and shouting:

“Ooo-vwah Pee Wee!”

“Ooo-vwah Simone!”

Man, these gals are awesome!

The Jesus & Mary Chain – Just Like Honey

You gotta give credit where it’s due. And I’m not going to front and say I had ever heard this song before the closing scene of “Lost in Translation” Though frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. The rest of the album is pretty darn amazing too. Even if dudes do look like the Thompson Twins.

Britt Daniel – Set Me Free

This is a live cover that Spoon’s Daniel laid down at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA back in ’00. These guys do some pretty tasteful covers, including a wonderfully stripped down “Bring It On Home To Me,” and Destroyer’s “It’s Gonna Take An Airplane”

The Crystals – Then He Kissed Me

I’m going to spit a lot of superlative in this blog. Every song is the best to me, but you can’t beat this one for pure joy. William Blake would like this song. Yeah.

Stax Records 1959 – 1968

This is really the heart of it. Songs without pretense. Fun, beautifully arranged, and staffed by the world’s greatest backing band. There is this infectious quality to the Stax sound, and by the end of the song you don’t just like it, you hope for it’s success. Each of these songs was recorded around the time of Otis Redding’s death, on December 10, 1967. While there are a great number of somber requiems written for Otis (Arthur Conley’s “Otis Sleep On” being the best), I think these tunes speak to the environment that this affable,  talented and hardworking artist was able able to create around himself.

Jeanne and the Darlings – How Can You Mistreat The One You Love?

Rufus Thomas – The Memphis Train

The Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

Eddie Floyd – Big Bird

ollie.gifOllie & The Nightingales – I Got A Sure Thing

buy this!stax_0-7567-82218-2-8_lg.jpg