Beyond the Book Review: A feast for the ears—60 Significant Vocal Jazz and Traditional Pop albums

I recently published a highly critical review of Will Friedwald’s The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums (Pantheon 2017) on my December 2017 Book Review blog. The book highlights 57 albums representing his perspective on the best albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret traditions. Lists are highly subjective by definition so personal taste will always engender criticism. While I agree with many of his choices, such as 1954’s Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles’s  1962 album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, my primary critique with his list is a lack of diversity especially in terms of style and chronology. He fixates so narrowly on pop music of the mid-to-late 1950s (e.g., Doris Day) that he overlooks new generations of vocalists doing excellent work. Time will ultimately be the judge.

Below is a list of 60 albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret fields that represent the best in the field of vocal interpretation. I selected the list based on the quality of the recording, unique and intangible qualities, and historic importance. Optimally, people who love enjoy these genres have fodder for discussion. Similarly, I hope that people seeking to build their collections and explore a variety of styles will find this list useful and informative. I aimed very intentionally to incorporate a balanced list of vocalists from multiple decades singing a broad repertoire of songs. I have restricted artists to one album apiece (except for duet projects) to foster greater diversity and have focused on albums rather than compilations. Because of this some key artists, such as Bessie Smith, are missing; check out my June 2016 blog “Contagious in his enthusiasms: A Personal List of Essential Music (Part 1)” to explore essential vocal jazz and pop compilations in greater depth.

Ballads, Crooning & Torch Songs

All the Way, 1992 (Jimmy Scott): After years of obscurity, the famed balladeer applied his languorous, almost elliptical style to classic ballads with the musicians and structural support befitting his talents.

American Song, 2003 (Andy Bey): A superb showcase of Bey’s hushed, carefully paced style  

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In the Wee Small hours of the Morning, 1955 (Frank Sinatra): This is one of ultimate torch song albums of Sinatra singing soulfully and vulnerably.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, 1963 (Johnny Hartman): On a program of six songs, saxophonist John Coltrane and the sublime baritone Johnny Hartman create one of the most sumptuous collections of love songs.

Love, 1963 (Rosemary Clooney): Love captures the sensual energy and bittersweet nature of Clooney’s romance with arranger Nelson Riddle whose dramatic orchestrations amplify the emotional subtexts of these songs of romantic longing.

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Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, 1994 (Etta James): James switched from sultry R&B to the torch  songs of Lady Day, her idol, and the result is a smoldering collection representing James at her most reflective.

Night in Manhattan, 1950 (Lee Wiley): Wiley’s cool sensuality illuminates a set of eight classic saloon songs.

Rapture, 1962 (Johnny Mathis): This suite of lushly arranged ballads captures the elegant crooning style of Johnny Mathis singing at his finest.

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The Very Thought of You, 1958 (Nat King Cole): The lushest and most beautiful collection of ballads recorded by the smooth and poised Cole.

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Blues & Jazz

Blue Light Til’ Dawn, 1993 (Cassandra Wilson): The most innovative vocal jazz album of the 1990s showcases profound awareness of how blues elements can transform how we hear and understand jazz.

Louis Plays W.C. Handy, 1964 (Louis Armstrong): Armstrong’s blues sensibility and improvisational prowess made him jazz’s most important musician. Here he interprets the repertoire of the premiere composer of early American blues.

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Classic Blues

Richland Woman Blues, 2001 (Maria Muldaur): Muldaur interprets classic blues and country blues songs associated with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, with gusto.

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Brazilian Jazz & Pop

Courage, Milton Nascimento, 1969 (Milton Nascimento): Nascimento was an established musician in Brazil; his introduction to U.S. listeners is a collaboration with jazz musicians featuring many songs vocalists continue interpreting including bridges and Salt Song.

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Elis & Tom, 1974 (Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim): Brazil’s finest singer and greatest composer collaborated on what are the definitive versions of songs such as “The Waters of March.”

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Cabaret

Blame it On My Youth, 1992 (Holly Cole): Swinging postmodern cabaret bringing together a century of composers from Frank Loesser to Lyle Lovett.

From Broadway to Bebop, 1994 (Susannah McCorkle): McCorkle locates the melodic richness and lyrical imagination of everything from jazz standards like “Moody’s Mood” to movie themes on this wonderfully eclectic group of interpretations.

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Judy Live at Carnegie Hall, 1961 (Judy Garland): Garland’s dynamic energy and vast repertoire came together on this magical night.

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Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s, 1956 (Mabel Mercer): This exquisite set represents the sophisticated repertoire and some of live emotional intimacy that made the Welsh-American singer the exemplar of the cabaret vocal style.

Songs By Bobby Short, 1960 (Bobby Short): Short held court at the Café Carlyle for over 30 years and defined New York’s Upper Eastside cabaret sound. This early set showcases his mastery of the songs of Vernon Duke, Bessie Smith, Cole Porter and more obscure composers.

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The Barbra Streisand Album, 1963 (Barbra Streisand): Streisand’s debut set a new standard in the vocal pop skill field via impeccable technical prowess and an original contemporary interpretive approach laced with irony, humor and vivacity that distinguished her from pre-rock female pop vocalists

The Divine Miss M, 1973 (Bette Midler): Midler reinvigorated cabaret music in the 1970s by mixing homages to pre-rock pop and rock material, with contemporary singer-songwriter fare.

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Experimental/Beyond Category

Café Blue, 1994 (Patricia Barber): Thrilling experimental jazz featuring original compositions, interpretations of rock and standards, poetry, and instrumentals.

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Genre-Busters

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, 1960 (Ray Charles): The pioneering soul man invigorated songs by Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers with brassy swing, and infused countrypolitan ballads with elegance and pathos.

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Stardust, 1978 (Willie Nelson): Nelson translates his laidback phrasing and emotional command on this sterling collection of pre-rock standards arranged in an acoustic setting.

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The Gathering, 2011 (Diane Schuur): Schuur, singing and playing piano, reinterprets a set of first-rate country classics in a soulful style showcasing her gospel, jazz and pop roots.

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Singer-Songwriter Jazz

Be Good, 2012 (Gregory Porter): Porter solidified his reputation as the freshest male voice in 21st century vocal jazz thanks to his highly personal, yet relatable original songs, evoking writers like Oscar Brown Jr. and Marvin Gaye, and a warm, robust vocal style.

Serene Renegade, 2004 (René Marie): Marie consciously broke from the standards repertoire  to craft this engaging suite of melodic new songs that tell fresh personal stories.

 

Soul & Jazz

Live Session, 1964 (Ernie Andrews and Cannonball Adderley): A jumping set of soulful and swinging performances by one of jazz’s most venerable and underrated vocalists in the presence of a sizzling band.

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Pride and Joy, 2002 (Kevin Mahogany): Mahogany reinterprets classics from the Motown era as fresh jazz vehicles.

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Tobacco Road, 1964 (Lou Rawls): Classic songs like “Ol Man River” and “Georgia on My Mind” take on a new life via the thoughtful interpretations of the soulful Lou Rawls.

 

Straight-ahead jazz & bebop

A Little Moonlight, 2003 (Dianne Reeves): Superb straight-ahead jazz that makes you hear key classics like “What a Little Moonlight Can do,” and “Lullaby of Broadway” in an entirely new way. 

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American Road, 2011 (Tierney Sutton Band): A stunning amalgamation of songs from spirituals to Broadway.

Anita O ’Day Sings the Winners, 1958 (Anita O’Day): A jazz vocalist in prime form interpreting classic jazz melodies.

Cat, 2006 (Catherine Russell): A contemporary synthesizer of R&B, swing, rock, and classic blues debuts here.

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Close Enough for Love, 1989 (Shirley Horn): A masterful blend of luxuriant balladry and hard swinging jazz.

Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, 1955 (Joe Williams): A classic of big band swing jazz with a blued edge, including definitive versions of "Everyday I the Blues," "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," and "Alright, OK You Win" that have established a blueprint for other vocalists.

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Dinah Jams, 1954 (Dinah Washington): Washington showcases the scope of her improvisational chops on this thrilling set recorded with bebop musicians before a live audience.

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald): Ella’s finest live album showcases her mastery of ballads, swing, improvisation and performance on an eclectic repertoire of top shelf songs.

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Live at the Jazz Workshop, 1989 (Kitty Margolis): One of the most skilled improvisers steeped in the jazz tradition debuted on this thrilling concert album.

Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, 1995 (Dee Dee Bridgewater): Bridgewater performs the first full collection of lyricized Horace Silver songs and it balances swing, bop, and funk perfectly.

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Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley, 1960 (Mel Tormé): Tormé’s wit, poise, and musicianship infuses a set of bonafide Broadway classics with a jazz-based savoir-faire

Nancy King: Live at Jazz Standard (with Fred Hersch), 2006 (Nancy King): A masterful vocal improviser and astute pianist  make improvisational magic together live.

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Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley 1961, (Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley): Nancy Wilson essays a set of classic performances melding the earthiness of R&B with the fervor of jazz

Nightmoves, 2009 (Kurt Elling):  Elling employs his formidable jazz chops on a varied program including a brilliant rendition of “Body and Soul” dedicated to his daughter.

No Cover, No Minimum, 1960 (Billy Eckstine): This live set chronicle’s baritone Eckstine’s powerful showmanship on everything from Broadway to Ellington.

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Portrait of Sheila Jordan, 1962 (Sheila Jordan): A total original in the vocal world, Jordan translated the improvisational values of her bebop heroes, especially Charlie Parker, into daring approaches to jazz and pop standards.

Rah! 1961 (Mark Murphy): A student of bebop, swing, vocalese, and cool jazz, bopster Mark Murphy made his reputation on this inspired set, most notable for his take on “Doodlin,” “Twisted,” and “Milestones.”

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Sarah Vaughan, 1954 (Sarah Vaughan):  Vaughan’s gorgeous voice anchors this delightful small group set highlighted by classic ballad performances of “April in Paris” and “Embraceable You” and a highly influential version of Lullaby of Birdland.”

Songs I Like to Sing! 1960 (Helen Humes):  The bluesy jazz singer with the girlish tone sings her favorite songs with some of her favorite musicians and the result is a highly natural and entertaining group of expert swinging performances.

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Spring Isn’t Everything, 1986 (Maxine Sullivan): The swinging minimalist interprets songs of Harry Warren with interpretive grace and swinging aplomb.

Sweet Home Cookin’, 1993 (Karrin Allyson): Allyson’s sophomore album is a genuinely exciting collection of heartfelt ballads, soulful vocalese, and skillful improvisation.

The Audience with Betty Carter, 1979 (Betty Carter): This live set captures the skill and excitement of the improvisational daredevil Betty Carter.

The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club, 2009 (Freddy Cole): An exciting concert set that captures the singer and pianist in total command of pop, swing, and blues tunes.

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The Great American Songbook, 1972 (Carmen McRae): Subtle, swinging, and incisive, this concert capture McRae in peak form.

The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960 (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross): One of the most influential collections of the art of vocalese highlighted by classics such as “Twisted.”

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The Real Thing, 1990 (Carol Sloane): An exemplary performance of swing, bop, and balladry by a seasoned interpreter.

Traditional Pop/Swing Influenced Pop

The Art of Romance, 2004 (Tony Bennett): An interpretive master reaches his musical and lyrical acme on an inspired set of love songs.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Porgy & Bess, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong): Jazz’s greatest duet partners combine forces on this exquisite interpretation of America’s premier folk opera.

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Little Girl Blue, 1959 (Nina Simone): Simone’s unique blend of classical and jazz influences premiered on this stately album of inspired interpretations including “I Loves you Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

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Movin’ on Broadway, 1960 (Kay Starr): Starr brings brass, sizzle, and pathos to a delightful set of Broadway classics.

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Each of these artists represents the best of these vocal traditions and  warrant further listening and exploration. Enjoy!

   COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

A relentless nod to the past

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

By Will Friedwald

Pantheon, 2017

I usually like Will Friedwald’s books more than I expect to. Friedwald is the author of Jazz Singing, Stardust Melodies, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, and the new book The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. Friedwald is a highly opinionated journalist, a record producer, a frequent talking head in documentaries and a writer of liner notes. Through his writing, I learned about some of jazz’s finest vocalists including Mildred Bailey, The Boswell Sisters, Jackie Paris, and Kay Starr. I also enjoy the fact that he is one of the few active jazz oriented critics who appreciates vocal jazz, pre-rock pop music and cabaret. In an era where artists of advanced age struggle for support and attention, it is refreshing to read the work of someone who appreciates the past. Simply by valuing vocalists as artists, without excuses, he stands apart and has had the opportunity to write several books about jazz singing, jazz and pop repertoire, and vocalists.

My challenges with Friedwald’s writing are technical and ideological. He writes with the genuine enthusiasm of a fan and admirer, and does his homework on the backstories of his objects of study. But he frequently overburdens you with run on sentences loaded with lots of random details and written in an exhausting taxonomical style. For example, he loves to reveal the race and ethnicity of songwriters, or to explain the roots of a song but this minutiae often feel superfluous, illuminating little about enjoying the recording itself. In addition to doing archival research, I get the sense that he has become chummy with many of his subjects and collected a trove of anecdotes about recording sessions and interpersonal relationships.  This gives his writing an insider’s feel, but is sometimes wearying. He discusses 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002 and almost every album is discussed track-by-track making the whole book feel like one long review.

Music critic Will Friedwald's book shares his perspective on 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002.

Music critic Will Friedwald's book shares his perspective on 57 albums recorded from 1950-2002.

More troubling is a tendency toward mean-spirited rants inappropriate in serious criticism. For example, since 1990’s Jazz Singing he has attacked Barbra Streisand’s persona in relation to other artists, as opposed to her work. While her recordings are not above criticism, his writing in 2011’s Biographical Guide is condescending, sexist, nasty, and features factual errors. These attacks on Streisand have surfaced in multiple places including liner notes for other singers’ recordings, and even as asides in The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. The book does not include an entry on any of her recordings, which is ridiculous, so if he detests her so much why bother insulting her in this book or featuring an entry in the previous book? As much he wants readers to view him as a credible voice he cannot resist the urge to cater to tired old stereotypes and take cheap shots. 

My third issue is a matter of taste. As much as Friedwald professes to love vocal jazz he seems mostly drawn to middle-of the road vocalists like Doris Day, who has three entries in his new book, and Jo Stafford, who has three. Taste is taste, but I find it strange in a book with the title’s pretense (The Great) that he could not make room for more innovative and challenging vocalists like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila Jordan, Bette Midler, Mark Murphy, or…Streisand. As talented as Day, Stafford, and other singers of this ilk are, he does not make a strong argument that their artistry advances pop or jazz singing. He just enjoys them and that is apparently sufficient. As such, the book is really an expression of his personal preferences rather than a serious book bound to influence future thinking on the topic of vocal jazz and pre-rock pop.

Though Friedwald frequently notes that jazz influenced pop was the mainstream before rock and roll and music overtly targeting youth, when given the choice between daring improvisational music and middle of the road romantic pop he almost always chooses the latter. He may respect Jordan and Murphy, or Carol Sloane (all included in Biographical Guide), but for him Peggy Lee and Margaret Whiting’s albums are superior album makers. The book may be enjoyable to his established fans and admirers but it squanders the opportunity for contemporary readers to recognize that great vocal jazz and cabaret singing did not stop in the late 1950s which is the era dominating his discussion. Among the 57 albums 51 were recorded from 1950-1969. Among the remaining sets, five are from the 1970s and two from the early 2000s. If people looking to learn roe about the vocal fields read this book, they might wonder if anyone recorded a quality album during the 1980-2002 period, or since 2002. Of course, many artists did record exceptional albums, from Sheila Jordan’s daring voice and bass albums of the 1970s to Gregory Porter’s excellent jazz and soul fused sets in the 2010s.  For Friedwald, however, the mid-to-late 1950s was the peak of album making. I must note that large record labels abandoned jazz decades ago, so there is a structural element to consider. Symbolically, however, the attitude that the best vocal jazz and pop happened in the past partially illustrates why younger people see jazz as old fashioned and out of-date.

More is the pity, because reissues by classic vocal artists like Armstrong, Fitzgerald, and Holiday outsell contemporary singers so the book is more of a retread of the obvious than the groundbreaking exposé of daring and innovative work it could have been. For people who are genuinely concerned about the commercial obscurity of jazz and cabaret there is a compelling desire to positon jazz as relevant. This does not mean we excise the past, but it seems possible to acknowledge influential canonical works and note how innovations continue to emerge from the vocal field, as the possibilities for repertoire, arrangement, and technique continue to evolve.

Mr. Friedwald’s own writing has had to bush against some of this reality even reluctantly. Since the original publication of Jazz Singing in 1990 many of the acts he dismissed brashly at the time, such as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick Jr., and Diane Schuur persisted and he has been forced to come around. Critics change their minds all the time, so some of his hastiness is forgivable. But it is supremely ironic that 20 years later Connick, Feinstein, and Mathis, and others he dismissed such as Any Williams, have entries in A Biographical Guide. He also wrote the liner notes for Schuur’s 2014 album I Remember You. Are these singers any better now than they were circa 1990 or has he run out of subjects to cover?

And so it goes in the divided music industry. The gap between youth and adult music has grown so wide that if Friedwald did not relent and reconsider even a little, he would have very few (living) people to write about. Though he has nodded to artists like Cassandra Wilson on previous occasions, most of the artists he champions are dead, or many have simply peaked artistically as the natural result of age and time. Thus, he is advocating for folks to listen to recordings more than people you can see and hear live. I appreciate his love for veterans like tony Bennett and Marilyn Maye but they will have to retire eventually. Rather than becoming a preservationist, now probably seems like a good time for him to acknowledge the keepers of the pre-rock flame. He may already be too late.

As The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums hits virtual retailer and brick-and-mortar shelves, albums as a form, are losing relevance. The convenience of downloading and its implied customization might render the classic devotion of critics to the album form moot. CD sales were robust just over a decade ago when several artists could sell multiple millions of an album and have hit singles. In the 2010s album covers, liner notes, arrangement and production details and other symbols of the albums era feel nostalgic.

Friedwald’s willingness to stick with his aesthetic sensibilities indicates a certain integrity, but I doubt he will inspire future generations to seek out LPs by Day, Tiny Tim, and some of the other oddball entries in the book, however meaningful they be to him personally.   Despite the title, “Great” is highly subjective and Friedwald fails to define its meaning beyond what he likes personally. If he titled the book the Most Innovative vocal albums, or the Most Influential vocal albums, the book would have more gravity. That approach would have been more global and critically rigorous, and would speak directly to how these recordings affected other vocal artists and listeners. This book, more than any of his others, is a highly subjective personal expression. Imagine someone rifling through their record collection, choosing 50 or so favorites and writing about them in an encyclopedic sense and you have the essence of the book. Friedwald vacillates between intimate and authoritative voices, but the book has a built-in insularity. Since he has chosen to write from a place of personal taste, it is hard not to address his taste in similar terms.

In terms of choices, Friedwald shares the universal, and understandable, admiration of most critics for canonical figures like Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington so they have at least one entry. These include almost indisputable classics such as Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s Ella & Oscar and Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers. Other choices reflect one of Friedwald’s strengths as a writer for drawing renewed attention to overlooked greats and unearthing credible left-field choices.  He has championed overlooked singers like Marilyn Maye, Kay Starr, and Lee Wiley for many years so their inclusion is predictable and welcome. Less obvious choices range from recordings on the lighter side like Della Reese’s Della Loves to Cha Cha Cha and Steve Lawrence’s  & Eydie Gormé’s cover album of big band tunes Eydie and Steve Sing the Golden Hits, to more interesting entries on Blossom Dearie, Matt Dennis, and the English singer Barb Jungr, included for her take on the Bob Dylan songbook.

The book’s omissions reflect ongoing blind spots in Friedwald’s taste. The album focuses almost exclusively on American singers with the exception of Jungr. You could easily turn to Brazil for an abundance of gifted jazz singers who have recorded excellent albums including Lenny Andrade, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Elis Regina, and Milton Nascimento. Alas, he sticks with America and England. No albums based around songs outside of the English language are included, which is disappointing considering the important role songs in other languages, especially Spanish, French, and Portuguese, have played in the repertoire of U.S. vocalists. The only major American vocalist to emerge since the 1980s included in the collection is Cassandra Wilson. Though she is an excellent choice, there is no limit to the great singing happening among current active singers. Some of the finest recordings of the last 30 years emerged from contemporary vocalists such as Karrin Allyson, Patricia Barber, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Holly Cole, Kurt Elling, Kevin Mahogany, Rene Marie, Gregory Porter, Dianne Reeves, Diane Schuur, and Tierney Sutton. In their place are Doris Day and Robert Goulet’s version of Annie Get Your Gun and Tiny Tim’s God Bless Tiny Tim.

Friedwald has long struggled to reconcile his taste for musicals, pre-rock pop, and jazz with the rock world thus his “coming out” in Biographical as a fan of Dylan and Elvis. This might explain why few of the albums, aside from Jungr and Wilson’s Belly of the Sun (featuring several canonical blues and gospel songs alongside songs by The Band, Dylan, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and herself), feature a repertoire reflecting the last 50 years of popular songwriting. Several albums, including The Tierney Sutton Band’s Sting Vriations (2016) and the Joni Mitchell set, 2014’s After Blue, Roseanna Vitro’s The Music of Randy Newman (2011), Holly Cole’s Tom Waits suite Temptation (1995), and multiple albums by Curtis Stigers recorded in the 2000s-2010s illustrate the value jazz vocalists have found in the rock canon. Related to this is scant attention to people outside of the jazz and cabaret field who have demonstrated excellent interpretive skill across genres, notably Willie Nelson’s classic 1978 standards album Stardust.  Again, given the opportunity to reflect a broad palette he has settled for either safe predictability or highly personal preferences that ignore large slices of the vocal interpretive world. 

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums raises questions about the ethical role of music critics especially those writing in commercially obscure fields. In the past, critics wrote from their personal taste perspectives, but they frequently advocated for underdogs in the hope that positive reviews might lead to greater exposure for the artists and the art. In the case of vocal jazz, as well as cabaret and “traditional pop,” veteran singers with extensive catalogs (most of whom are dead) are actually sales leaders who outsell newer singers. Comparatively, contemporary vocalists in the jazz, cabaret and traditional pop vocal fields, are in genres that major record labels severed from the mainstream pop world decades ago with rare exception. Most of these artists record for smaller, independent labels and have fewer outlets for exposure. Though the digital age has ostensibly eased some distribution and promotional costs, the internet has not made very many jazz, cabaret or traditional pop singers stars. Critics such as Friedwald should have the freedom to write about whomever and whatever they choose, but the emphasis on the “good old days” has the tacit effect of conveying that very little music made today is worth hearing. He, and others like him,  may find few new singers to write about in the future.  

As such I appreciate the past masters, and Lord know my preferences are as strong as anyone’s, I wish there was more diversity among those who write about vocal jazz and cabaret. Mr. Friedwald is an often enjoyable and insightful writer, but the narrowing commercial possibilities for vocal jazz and pop and the narrowing of voices included in the canon elevates nostalgia and limits the contemporary audience’s attention to living contemporary vocalists. Talented, idiosyncratic vocalists like Kitty Margolis, Madeline Eastman, Lisa Sokolov and Theo Bleckmann were never going to be cross over commercial artists regardless of critical acclaim. However, their music takes risks and strives for improvisational and interpretive greatness in a way that makes them singular artists. In a book attempting to capture vocal art as captured on albums The Great is strangely conservative and anachronistic, and nods to Tiny Tim do little to curb this narrow view. Tellingly the book’s Discography lists LPs and CDs but does not indicate if the albums listed are available for downloading. 

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  

Alive and playing

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz

By Fred Hersch

Crown Archetype, 2017

Jazz composer and pianist Fred Hersch is the epitome of a “both/and” rather than “either/or artist”. He is renowned for his lyricism at the keyboard, but also his rhythmic prowess. He can write and play ethereal harmonies but he can also get down when playing Monk. He is very vulnerable and self-deprecating about his personality but cocksure about his pianistic talent. He beats himself up for not practicing as much as he should but is a very informed student of his art in both the classical and jazz traditions. He documents his complexities very convincingly his autobiography Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz. The title comes from a doctor remarking on Hersch’s status after slipping into a coma that could have been fatal. The subtitle stems from Hersch’s status as one of the few openly gay identified musicians in jazz, which caused him considerable angst before his HIV positive designation in 1986 pushed him to tear down walls and use his status to advocate.

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Hersch, with editorial assistance from writer David Hajdu, tells his story chronologically detailing his economically privileged childhood in Cleveland Ohio (he was born in 1955), his affection for music, his discovery that he was gay, and his assertion into Cleveland’s jazz scene. His professional dyes paying in Cleveland provided a launching pad to enter into move to New York’s jazz community in the late 1970s. Hersch paints a compelling portrait of a promising young talent balancing something easy to discern, his talent for playing with something profoundly personal, meaning his sexual desire in an often macho and homophobic artistic milieu. Despite the tensions between these positions, he persists with developing his reputation as a player, and manages to develop important professional relationships that increase his visibility. By the late 1980s, he becomes a leader and secures the first of multiple Grammy nominations in the early 1990s.

Though Hersch comes out to family, friends and colleagues gradually in the 1980s he finds the love of his life at Birdland in 2002 when his future husband Scott Morgan shares how much he enjoys Hersch’s playing. In addition to building a life together Morgan plays a pivotal role as a caretaker when Hersch’s health declines in an episode in 2007, where the virus leads to significant weight loss and diminished cognitive functioning. Though he recovers gradually, in the summer of 2008 he experiences a wave of fatigue and stasis before devolving into a comatose state that lasts for six weeks. Hersch recovers gradually over the following year, and returns to playing. Though he was nervous about losing his skills post-coma, his playing changes, “I feel like I have been playing more deeply at this point in my life, whatever the reasons—age, experience, maturity, not caring as much what people think, and/or the wisdom and enhanced clarity of purpose that often comes to people forced to face death at close range” (288). Ever the artist, he also translates some of his experiences into “a hybrid performance/multimedia work” My Coma Dreams with librettist Herschel Garfein. My Coma Dreams is performed and staged at multiple live venues and is eventually filmed and released on DVD.

Hersch remains a highly respected pianist and composer of considerable ambition, and one senses that he is still in bloom. He is the only musician the Village Vanguard has presented regularly as a solo pianist.  Though he focuses on his instrumental work, he is a highly distinguished accompanist having performed on Grammy nominated albums by Nancy King and Janis Siegel, and albums by respected vocalists Leny Andrade, Jay Clayton, Renee Fleming, Johnny Mathis, Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Norma Winstone, among others. Hersch is also a mentor as a bandleader and as a teacher at Rutgers University. Whatever challenges he has faced in terms of navigating his identity, his health, and the relative cult status of piano jazz, Hersch is an exemplar of determination and persistence. In an autobiography filled with engaging and deeply personal stories, one that stands out for simplicity and poignancy is Hersch’s encounter with the late drummer Billy Higgins who struggled with kidney and liver problems.  After playing a set in weakened condition, embraced Hersch and exclaimed “It’s good to be alive” (286). Hersch has taken this ethos to heart and exceeded his desire to “try to write a book” by writing a remarkably engrossing book.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The art of the “Divine One”

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

By Elaine M. Hayes

Ecco, 2017

The increasing commercial gap between commercial pop targeting younger buyers and so-called “adult” music amplifies the urgency of reminding contemporary listeners that improvising jazz musicians were mainstream musicians for most of the previous century.

One example is the foremost singer of the bebop tradition, Sarah Vaughan (known as “the Divine One” and “Sassy”). After recording for independent record labels in the mid-1940s, she got a major recording contract with Columbia Records. This was significant because at the time only a handful of black artists had access to the financial resources and promotional support that could expose them to white audiences. Aside from cutting a few tunes with jazz musicians she mostly sang a lot of syrupy pop tunes with strings and dreadful “novelty songs.” Though her time there, 1949-53, yielded some gorgeous performances (e.g. “Black Coffee,” “Ooh What’cha Doin’ to Me”) she was only mildly successful commercially. Mutual frustration led Columbia Records to decline to renew her contract, and Sarah to pursue other opportunities.

Freed from their constraints, she found the right balance between pop and jazz singing with Mercury Records, which offered her an unorthodox arrangement: She would record pop material for Mercury, and release improvisational jazz-oriented material on their subsidiary EmArcy. As Elaine Hayes recalls in her excellent new Vaughan biography Queen of Bebop, this arrangement captured her artistic vision better than her previous arrangements. “Vaughan could now split her talent in two and experience the best of both worlds: fame and fortune as a pop starlet and the creative freedom of a jazz artist” (164). Vaughan had dueling instincts to fuse the lush grandeur and “legitimacy” of classical music (she had the voice for it) with the improvisational spontaneity and blues feeling of jazz. At Mercury/EmArcy she could record ballads with strings, which she loved, score a few profitable radio hits and simultaneously work with jazz musicians with whom she always had amazing chemistry.

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

The dual arrangement yielded some of the most beautiful and listenable albums of lush romantic music recorded in the 1950s, and even gave her a few “hit”  singles like 1954’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” and 1958’s “Whatever Lola Wants.” She and some of jazz’s most respected arrangers and musicians, including Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, and Roy Haynes recorded canonical vocal jazz albums with vocal performances and solos that have provided a blueprint for generations of musicians. It was a simpatico arrangement that lasted from 1954-60 before she recorded for Roulette Records.

When she returned to Mercury in 1963 EmArcy had dissolved, and though her first few recordings included a few jazz oriented dates she was forced to record a lot of ill-fitting contemporary pop.  The notion of Vaughan recording songs by Burt Bacharach/Hal David and The Beatles is not fundamentally outrageous; but covering these songs was redundant and cheesy arrangements undermined her talents. More to the point, the company’s insistence reflected the larger reality that jazz influenced music was no longer the mainstream. Rock music was. The great divide was already in motion and record companies expected singers who had previously mined the nuances of Ellington and Gershwin to get with it or move on. Vaughan stuck it out recording suites of pop covers and a few jazz dates before ending her recording career for four years. She was tired of record company games and ironically, 32 years into her career, she began rediscovering her voice through building a robust concert career. More on that later.

Hayes makes a very convincing argument for Vaughan as the most musically accomplished vocalist in popular music history, a sentiment shared with others including third stream pioneer Gunther Schuller who she quotes in the Epilogue.  Hayes, who holds a Ph. D. in music, describes her “crossover moment” in the Prologue noting how Vaughan’s “amazing voice” and “musical mind” shifted initial attention away from studying Europe classical music to study jazz, so captivating was Vaughan’s artistry (1).  Bebop musicians grew up with big band jazz but as swing became increasingly generic and commercial they shifted toward a more self-consciously artistic approach to improvisation. By the mid-1940s they had developed an advanced harmonic vocabulary and a penchant for virtuosic performing that focused on listening rather than dancing. Vaughan was the first vocalist to absorb this new aesthetic, and in a sense was one of the first jazz oriented vocalists to see herself as an artist rather than just a commercial singer or entertainer. This is pivotal musically, and culturally since as Hayes illustrates, the white dominated music industry expected black singers to sing blues, novelty songs and so-called “ethnic” music, not “art” music (118-20).

Whereas Vaughan’s swing predecessors typically had roots in classic blues and/or swing, she learned gospel music as a child at Mount Zion Baptist church in Newark, New Jersey. Her training on piano and organ exposed her to classical music, and she was a prodigy who studied music relentlessly. Along with gospel, and classical music, she was also a big fan of swing and got her first break winning the Apollo Amateur night in 1942 singing “Body and Soul.” Vaughan never had formal voice lessons, but translated her keyboard skills and her eclectic stylistic knowledge into a singular vocal style. From there, pianist and bandleader Earl Hines band hired her to sing and play piano. She transitioned into singing in Billy Eckstine’s pioneering bebop orchestra before going solo recording for Musicraft, Columbia, Mercury and EmArcy, Roulette, and Mercury before taking a recording hiatus. Pop covers and awkward rock and funk production choices bogged down most of the albums she recorded for Mainstream Records (1971-74). But, albums like 1973’s Live in Japan and her late 1970s Pablo Records recordings (I Love Brazil! and How Long Has This Been Going On?) reminded people of her enduring commitment to jazz.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album Gershwin Live! which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album Gershwin Live! which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Two key developments Hayes highlights that are pivotal to helping her realize her expansive jazz and classical fusion was recording Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” in 1973 and Michael Tilson Thomas’s invitation for her to collaborate on a travelling program of Gershwin songs in 1974. Though her initial “Clowns” was recorded in an unfortunate funk arrangement, she found the song intriguing and revisited the song making it her signature closing song. In her hands, the showtune became a “jazz aria” that displayed the full range of her talents (302-05). She and Thomas performed their Gershwin program successfully with symphonies for many years, which finally gave Vaughan the “legitimacy” she had been seeking throughout her career (307-10). Her 1982 version of “The Man I Love” recorded on their Grammy winning Gershwin Live! Is perhaps the definitive example of how classical music, jazz, and even elements of gospel music could cohere into an exciting whole, one that defied genre boundaries (341-42). As Hayes recounts, by the mid 1960s Vaughan was very open about her dislike at being labeled a “jazz” singer because her art transcended formulas. For Vaughan, “Either one is a singer or one isn’t. I like doing all types of material—just as long as it’s good” (273).

Queen of Bebop’s emphasis on Vaughan as a unique vocal artist parallels a central thread in several 21st century books on black female jazz vocalists. These including Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001), William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter (2002), Nadine Cohodas’s Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington (2004) and  Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (2012), and John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician & the Myth (2015). Notably, these books acknowledge the musical aesthetic of and the cultural context for these artists and posits them as formidable artists with an enduring creative imprint, rather than just “icons” or “figures.” 

Leslie Gourse’s 1993 Vaughan biography Sassy has served as major source of insight on Vaughan for many years. Queen, however, distinguishes itself by virtue of Hayes’s musical background. Her discussion, for example, of what made Vaughan’s hit recordings of “Make Yourself Comfortable” (176-80) and “Whatever Lola Wants” (168-70) are original readings that made me revisit the recordings.  Throughout the book, she parses many of Vaughan’s musical innovations in an authoritative but accessible fashion.  Hayes also has a firmer and intentional approach to addressing racism and sexism as important factors in Vaughan’s career. For example, she relates Vaughan’s tendency to surrender personal and professional control over to her three husband-managers as a reflection of gender norms. This also connects to the way male executives and promoters expected female artists to comply with their wishes rather than challenge them, hence Vaughan’s reputation for being “difficult” and “temperamental.”

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

In addition to drawing from previously published articles and interviews, Hayes quotes from a wide range of sources such as radio broadcasts. She also interviews several musicians and associates who worked directly with the vocalist, adding to the primary source Vaughan archive. From these sources, she is able to depict what Vaughan navigated on the road, her struggles with record companies and promoters, and her relationships with her musicians more fully than ever. What becomes clear throughout is that even when she was struggling with bad sound systems or hot weather, Vaughan charmed her audiences wowing them with the richness of her voice and her mastery of the stage. During her late -60s recording hiatus, she developed a more confident concert style laced with a cheeky sense of humor, and a flair for spontaneity. Hip contemporary vocal jazz artists Ann Hampton Callaway, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Dianne Reeves also testify to the gospel of Vaughan’s spell.

Though musicians and critics adore Vaughan, other jazz divas like Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have always overshadowed her in the public imagination. She seemingly lacked Holiday’s dramatic life, and Fitzgerald’s crowd-pleasing affability. But, Queen exposes these perceptions as facile. Vaughan endured racism and various kinds of abuse from her male lovers. She simply hid this from public view as much as she could. Dealing with these corrupt figures, rather than true talent management professionals, prevented her from having the kind of economic success and recording consistency that Fitzgerald experienced when she allowed Norman Granz to manage her career. Further, Vaughan was a relentless experimenter whose unwillingness to confine herself to expectations falls outside of the American popular music norm. After a few years, you knew where Fitzgerald might go with “Oh, Lady Be Good,” or “How High the Moon,” but Vaughan was even more unpredictable and playful expecting her bandmates to listen closely for the next daring feat. They were not merely accompanying or supporting her; they were keeping up with her.

Two elements that would enhance Queen. First, I wish Hayes had discussed certain albums in greater depth. For example, her 1961 album Sarah Slightly Classical (Roulette) was her attempt to record classical melodies, and given the book’s discussion of her aspiration toward classical music, I would love to read Hayes’s take on its execution. Her Roulette career is highlighted briefly, but its vastness warrants more attention. The reality is that Vaughan recorded 45 years’ worth of material so any writer would have to be selective. Second, I wish the book featured a discography of Vaughan’s albums. Since her death in 1990, several posthumous releases have expanded our understanding of Vaughan’s artistry. These include 1994’s Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records) recorded in 1961 for the “Navy Swings” public service program, In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records), recorded in Paris in 1985, but released in 1999, and the superb Live at Rosy’s recorded in 1978 in New Orleans but only released in 2016 by Resonance Records. The digital age has made many previously rare Vaughan recordings more accessible so it is possible there are even more recordings waiting for release. A novice to Vaughan might benefit from this resource even in abridged form.

These are minor issues in a major book that sits alongside the acclaimed titles listed above. Queen of Bebop is a superior memoir with a credible understanding of the musical innovations and cultural realities of Vaughan the artist, the woman, the African-American, and the musician.

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“Let them know who you are”

Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl: A Memoir

By Rashod Ollison

Beacon Press, 2016

Writing about the past requires emotional clarity in the present, and clarity is the hallmark of music critic Rashod Ollison’s enthralling memoir Soul Serenade. If soul is understood as an expression for vulnerability Mr. Ollison’s reflection is aptly named for he reveals the inner layers of his childhood years growing up in Arkansas as tenderly and honestly as a reader could wish.

Ollison structures the book in four parts: Part One introduces you to his parents Dianne and Raymond, and their courtship. He also shares their early adulthood disappointments; his mother drops out of college after her first year and his father is drafted for the Vietnam War. Part Two covers his first 10 years which includes four moves, his father’s abandonment, his mother’s struggles to remain afloat economically, the growing tensions among his siblings older sister Dusa and younger sister Reagan, and a fight that further splits the family. In Part Three Dianne has moved the family to Little Rock and Rashod’s talents impress his teachers and church leaders, but he struggles to connect with classmates, especially other boys. Gradually, as he is exposed to great literature and advances academically he gains confidence making friends and receiving plaudits for his writing. The family continues its nomadic pattern, moving four times between fourth grade and tenth grade for financial reasons, but he is looking ahead to college. Part Four depicts two family tragedies that are difficult but he persists steadfastly choosing to move forward with his life, going to college, and learning from the past.

Photo of author Rashod Ollison by Hyunsoo Leo Kim (Source: www.rashodollison.com).

Photo of author Rashod Ollison by Hyunsoo Leo Kim (Source: www.rashodollison.com).

As the subtitle, Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age through Vinyl, indicates music is integral to his story. For him it is an emotional salve from a chaotic daily life including navigating his hard working but emotionally distant mother Dianne; longing for the presence of his charismatic but absent father; and surviving life in a small town as a creative, effeminate and literate gay boy. In the “primal wail” (57) of Chaka Khan, the gospel of Aretha, and tenderness of Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Ollison finds solace recognizing vital pieces of his emotional life. He is equally drawn to the slick moves of Soul Train dancers and captivated by, as were most children of the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s pioneering Thriller videos. As a teenager he understands why the girls in his community identity with the tough façade Mary. Blige’s hip-hop inflected soul projects to her listeners. More importantly he recognizes their inherent vulnerability, noting, “a closer look, or listen, revealed that they were absolutely afraid, just as Mary was—afraid of not being loved, of not being understood.” (163). He draws the musical and emotional line, however, at gangsta rap (“I felt neither welcomed nor authenticated,” 167) whose macho posturing is at odds with his sensitivity and refined sensibilities. This rejection of hip-hop is somewhat unusual for a music critic of his generation, but his willingness to defy convention does not stop at musical taste.

Ollison is a brave and emotionally perceptive writer, and Soul Serenade dares to suggest that families are often emotionally unsafe and unwelcoming. He has affection for his loving, if unreliable, father and its clear why: He introduces him to classic soul music, welcomes him to hang out with he and his male friends, and showers him with affection. Dianne works ridiculously hard to make sure he and his sisters live in nice apartments in safe neighborhoods.  If she is not always as gentle as she could be, Ollison lets you into special moments that reveal a fuller portrait of her; like when she listens to Aretha Franklin’s classic gospel album Amazing Grace during difficulty times, or her coaching advice for Rashod when he has opportunities to read his poetry publicly. She roots for him even if she expresses this reservedly.

Dusa and Dianne are frequently at odds and he details two violent altercations (They reconcile eventually). He and Reagan have a highly contentious relationship, and his maternal grandmother Mama Teacake dismisses and ridicules him as a child.  For Ollison the comfort of music, the generosity of teachers and mentors, and the prose of literary giants, like Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, eventually gave him what he needed to become himself and transcend some of the challenges of his family.  

 Throughout his childhood teachers, like his fourth grade teacher Mrs. James who recommended him for a gifted student program, his eight grade teacher Mrs. Carpenter, who exposed him to African-American literary fiction, and his tenth grade teacher who recommended he pursue journalism, recognized Ollison’s gift for language. He is a gifted storyteller who draws you into a variety of situations with uncommon warmth and intimacy. This precocious quality also partially explains why he often found himself isolated from peers who taunted him for being a good student (accusing him of thinking he’s “white” in seventh grade), and even more devastatingly, ostracizing him for being effeminate and uncoordinated at sports. His family is especially harsh in this regard, ridiculing him for “acting like a girl” and leading him to constantly edit himself, and withdraw into his shell.

 Like Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in my Bones he illuminates life growing up as a young black person with limited resources in the contemporary post 1970s South. It is an often tough place to be characterized by poor living conditions, constant moving, drug addiction, and broken families. Yet there remains a shared sense of communality among neighbors, and family bonds remain endure even when fathers are absent, cousins are unreliable, and grandmothers are cold. There is disappointment and ache in Ollison’s prose, but never bitterness.

One of the most endearing stories he tells is of being accepted by the men of Emmanuel Baptist Church’s male mentoring group The Shepherd’s Club.  Beyond religion the group’s pastor, Reverend Griffin, who is also a judge, aims to impart a sense of esteem among the boys. In the midst of coaching the young men on how to shake hands he tells Rashod specifically, “look me in the eye. Grip my hand, son. Always stand straight and look a man in his eye, and always give a firm handshake. There, like that. Let them know who you are” (125). Years later, as a 15-year-old struggling emotionally at a mostly white camp for gifted and talented students, the Reverend sends Rashod a letter affirming his talents. From it he “felt a wave of comfort, a kind of metaphysical hug” that inspired him to let go and delve into the camp. He repeats the Reverend’s refrain in mantra-like fashion: Let them know who you are. By the end of Soul Serenade you develop a clear sense of where Ollison was as a child, how he grew into a young man, and can sense who he was to become. Best of all you are eager to know more.

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Writing 1971 into rock history

Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the year that rock exploded

By David Hepworth

Henry Holt & Company, 2016

 Readers can always safely assume that books aiming to convey the history of rock era music, like The Sound of the City (Charlie Gillett), Mystery Train (Greil Marcus), Rockin’ in the USA (Rebee Garofalo), and other well-known histories are premised on the idea that rock music is a legitimate art form that should be taken seriously. If this is true, the writer has to address proportionality. How much time do you give to the music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll which became a commercial genre in the mid-1950s roughly around 1955? How much space does one allot to the decades following the genre’s initial burst? Which artists warrant whole sections of deep analysis; what artists are comfortably grouped together to represent a trend? What artists, or subgenres are excluded entirely?

These are thorny questions that came up recently when I was reading David Hepworth’s new book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the year that rock exploded. Mr. Hepworth is a British journalist who argues that “the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year” in rock history was 1971(1).  His evidence lies primarily in albums released by rockers Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, The Who, as well as singer-songwriters like Carole King, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor. He also nods to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On which gets a whole chapter and mentions Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder, though black pop music is fairly marginal in his book. Guitar driven rock played by white male groups is his main focus. Not exactly an original premise.

Source: http://neveradullmoment1971.com/

Source: http://neveradullmoment1971.com/

 

Rock music is technically about 60 years old. Compared to American genres that pre-existed recording technology, notably gospel, blues, jazz, and various strains of folk and country music, rock is very young. But it is relentlessly historicized and the dominant trend in such histories is to remind us of the glories of the 1955-59 “Golden Age” defined by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and subsequent milestones like the folk rock era, the British Invasion, Motown, soul music, and Acid Rock.

For decades the 1970s was loathed in the critical community as the nadir of rock. Aside from glam and punk, which were more popular with music critics than consumers, and maybe funk, the 1970s has long been viewed by rock’s cognoscenti as a decade defined by banal soft rock, bloated commercial bands, and ephemeral disco.  Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (first published in 1970) ends by literally memorializing the era of “authentic” rock. The narrative: By the early ‘70s something vital and rebellious was now diluted by slickness, mellowness and commercialism and for him King, McLean, Simon, and Taylor exemplify its demise because it was middle of the road nostalgia music that nailed the coffin in rock by being “mature” rather than unhinged. Its last sentence reads: “But now here was pop music and its audience settling down at home with a mortgage to pay, kids put to bed. Goodnight America” (411). Jim Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin (1999) sees the end as a few years later circa 1977 when hype begins to exceed talent which makes stars of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and the soon-to-implode Sex Pistols, and Elvis dies. He uses Presley’s death and posthumous popularity to lament rock’s devolution into “a novel kind of consumer religion” (347). Books like Rockin’ in the USA, Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (Robert Palmer) and Rockin’ in Time (David Szatmary) are more hopeful citing punk, new wave, modern rock and hip-hop as modern incarnations of the original rock spirit, but Miller finds much of this as crude, obscene and silly (352).

Rock critics and historians have had to make greater peace with the pop music of the 1970s. They now have more time and perspective to put the decade’s output into context, and to be frank, critics too fixated on rock’s past risk running out of artists to write about. An artist must have a strong public presence for at least 25 years to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thus David Bowie, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Donna Summer co-exist with Berry, Holly, and Presley as well as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Roy Orbison in the Hall. Who from today will make it in is open though I imagine bands that fit certain patterns, like Coldplay, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, and Wilco, are likely candidates.

Critics are still sorting out the 1970s and their aftermath. Typical treatises on the decade address a genre or a group of artists rather than the decade itself. For example, David Browne’s Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 (2012) is a micro-level analysis of the early half of the decade. Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (2008) is not about the ‘70s per se but her discussions of King, Mitchell, and Simon dwell there for a substantial portion of time.  Disco has attracted many scholarly studies including Alice Echols’s Hot Stuff (2010) and Pete Shapiro’s Turn the beat Around (2005). Theo Cateforis’s Are We Not New Wave? (2011) was the first history of the new wave genre chronicling its late 1970s roots and its culmination into a discernible aesthetic and social phenomenon.  Books on Philly Soul, soft rock, jazz fusion and other developments are sure to come. Further, many groups are being reappraised. Karen Carpenter impressed critics with her vocal purity and assured phrasing, but The Carpenters’ middle of the road repertoire and Richard Carpenter’s slick arrangements also frustrated critics. In the 1990s though, they became critically respected and retroactively hip. Neil Diamond was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2011 and no one objected. Only a few obnoxious voices were outraged when the late Summer was inducted into the Hall. The 1970s is no longer such an embarrassment.

Never a Dull Moment can be understood in this literary and historical context. What began as a column in the British magazine Word called “1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album” has been fleshed out into a book aiming for a kind of political economy of 1971. Rather than merely talking about personal favorites Hepworth attempts, with mixed success, to blend autobiography, music criticism, and various insights on social and technological trends, to illustrate how certain figures, recordings, and phenomena have defined the modern age.  Some of the distinctions are dubious such as his overwritten and almost numbing account of how the press’s coverage Mick and Bianca Jagger’s marriage was a forerunner to celebrity news as captured in People magazine and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. This is a legacy of sorts but it undermines rather than deepens his argument about music.

He contrasts the haphazardness of the way Led Zeppelin and The Who recorded their albums with the calculated slickness involved in recording The Eagles’s debut. Their manager, agent and record label head David Geffen apparently asked them to add Jackson Browne’s “Nightingale” at the last minute which is read as a sign of “the way the world was to go” because it was about record labels minimizing the “slightest chance of failure.” (261). Though accusing The Eagles of slickness, or Geffen of commercialism, is hardly original, the idea that in this instance they invented large-scale commercial calculation is absurd. Pop formulas were in place decades before rock existed, and Hepworth veers dangerously into the nostalgic notion of a pre-1971 era of “purity.” This aligns with long held notions that rock is fundamentally about rawness, rebellion, and risk, and that happenstance and haphazardness define it more than repetition and formula.

For example, he makes a very solid argument about the aesthetic appeal of Rod Stewart’s 1971 acclaimed and popular album Every Picture Tells a Story, noting the rawness of its creation. But he never delves into Stewart’s facile attempts to replicate his own winning formula, or the unevenness of his career. Stewart is an example of an artist who peaked in 1971 has endured. He has done has so mostly by latching on to trends like disc, synth pop, soft rock, and in the 2000s covering standards (haggardly) to stay in the public eye. Instead of exploring this fuller story Hepworth describes how Stewart projected “two great British passions that had never really been significant in pop music before: football [soccer] and drinking” (163) and ruminates on his disheveled fashion (164). These are rather bland sidebars that miss a more interesting story about how tough it is to age and survive in rock. 

Hepworth falls prey to equating survival with quality. Yes, many people who weren’t alive in 1971 can hum “American Pie” and “Baba O’ Riley” is a bonafide anthem for people who love anthems. As much as one may love Stewart, Don McLean, Carole King, or The Who it is mutually understood that their finest music occurred in a narrow window of time. It seems like an appraisal to mark 1971 as their artistic zenith, but it also seems sad. Aside from a few stray singles few people rave about King’s post-Tapestry output. ‘60s and ‘70s rock groups have mostly become nostalgia acts who have rarely grown musically since their peak. This seems more characteristic of rock than most genres. Singers as disparate as Celia Cruz, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, and Willie Nelson are good examples of performers outside of straight-ahead rock with lengthy careers who started out as one thing and evolved in multiple directions. This is far less true of most of the musicians Hepworth cites.

Despite these challenges to his assertion about creativity Hepworth has some useful insights that speak to his argument regarding resonance. He astutely tracks the evolving relationships of audiences to performers noting how in the early ‘70s audiences became “a character in the drama” of concerts captured on live albums, as well as how artist security became a staple as audiences intensified their relationships to rock performers. He is spot on in citing the lyrics of “American Pie” as “the first intimation of a generation reluctantly growing up” (272) and employs greatest hits collections as exemplars of the fact that “rock heritage was marketable” (273). Though these kinds of compilations began in the mid-1950s with Johnny Mathis the ‘70s drove home the power of catalog music. These were signs of rock morphing into something serious and enduring. Hepworth is highly critical of The Concert of Bangladesh, which became a popular Grammy winning album, but uses it to argue that it “set the template for what became the rock recital, a presentational approach that was to grow in direct proportion to rock’s sense of self-importance, the audience’s demands that performances sound like the record they heard at home, and the extent to which it was felt that the occasion demanded some sort of grand gesture” (172).

On a smaller scale I appreciated his discussion of more intimate moments. He discusses the element of risk involved in Warner Brothers signing unorthodox acts like Lowell George, Van Dyke Parks, Bonnie Raitt, and Randy Newman whom he labels as “absurdly talented and utterly intractable” (185), and cites a marketing campaign for Newman to point out how “good taste” as being newly employed as a marketing strategy in pop music (186). He successfully illustrates how Tapestry made female listeners more palpable as a legitimate audience to the male-dominated rock community. My only caveat here is the critical folly that an album with its immense popularity only or primarily appealed or spoke to women, a gender distinction rarely made for albums made by men.  I was also enlightened by his discussion of the appeal of brooding British recluse Nick Drake who died of an overdose in 1974 and is now viewed as “a latter-day James Dean revered as much for what he seems to represent as for what he did” (48). His evidence is the adaptation of songs from Nick Drake’s three commercially obscure albums, especially 1971’s Bryter Layter, by singers across genre and generation.  I wish Hepworth was a more nuanced writer and thinker who avoided overstatements like claiming Bryter “has been more warmly adopted by subsequent generations” than any album of 1971. Based on sheer numbers the number of adaptations of songs from Tapestry or What’s Going On exceed the album’s latter day impact.

Part of the problem regarding Hepworth’s take on Drake’s legacy and the book in general is Hepworth’s “rock-ist” tendencies. True Lucinda Williams and Flaming Lips have covered his songs, but they are niche artists within rock. They speak to niches he likes but he continually slights genres outside of a narrow group of white rock and folk-rock he enjoys. In 2004 Kelefah Sanneh’s New York Times commentary “The Rap against Rockism” (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/31/arts/music/the-rap-against-rockism.html?_r=0) introduced this term which encapsulates the constant reiteration that rock bonafides are the universal standard of reference for virtually all music made post-1955.  Sanneh was spurred by the public reaction to Ashlee Simpson’s lip syncing mishap on Saturday Night Live and the tensions between authentic rock and plastic pop it reignited. Sanneh defines a rockist as “someone who reduces rock 'n' roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”

Hepworth has a more egalitarian view in that he acknowledges R&B and singer-songwriter pop. He also includes female performers to some extent and recognizes that gay people exist in pop music, but the book is as much about the imagined loss of a purer moment, primarily defined by rock and rollers like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, as it is a celebration of great music. His concept of greatness feels static as it is tied to the ongoing valorization of an established rock canon, one that is by definition relatively small given the rock oriented music made between 1955-71. This is a stagnant conversation for two reasons.

First, the world Hepworth discusses is mostly confined to British rock which has been invoked continually. And this reasoning persists ad infinitum. The new fashion in the rock critic world, whose influence and power have diminished with the diversification of writing venues, is to lionize post-1960s performers who fit the rock archetype including Springsteen, U2, R.E.M, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. Acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, Linkin Park are legends-in-waiting for induction into the modern rock hero class. This contemporary rock taste formation also informs the near desperate attempt by middle-aged (and older) rock critics to reposition hip-hop at the center of cutting edge pop by praising it incessantly as a revolutionary social force for fear of missing the next big thing, and latent anxiety about the overwhelming whiteness of the rock canon.

Sanneh urged readers to, “let's stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison's ‘Into the Music’ was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang's ‘Rapper's Delight’; which do you hear more often?” The notion of “serious rock songs” is tied to the idea that if you repeat something continually it morphs into incontestable truth. In the case of rock music the presumption underlying books like Never a Dull Moment is that rock is as entitled to a canon as any other musical form and is fundamentally a locus of larger things. The book aims for significance by noting big events from 1971, like the publishing of Charles’s Reich’s The Greening of America, but this is done mostly taxonomically and feels like an attempt to validate personal taste with bits of commentary, making it a forced read.

Second, as we know many in the classical and jazz spheres view pop music as limited aesthetically and view the notion of rock as part of a canon a desperate and futile gesture toward posterity. Some of this is about impudent snobbery and latent classism. But the objection points to the hazard of isolating rock as a unique historic force while simultaneously trying to force it into a straitjacket the way some neo-classical jazz artists have attempted to do with jazz.

Part of rock’s joy is its energy and even its ephemerality. Instead of trying to erect canons based on endurance what happens when we acknowledge the actual nature of the form itself? Most rock acts are vernacular artists rather than virtuosos, and have a small window of commercial success and aesthetic exploration. Once they land on a style they tend to repeat it unless and until their audiences lose interest. From there they either lose their audience, or become a nostalgia act, as Hepworth points out in his discussion of Elvis circa 1971. There are exceptions to this but not as many as you would think. 60 years in nostalgia, formula, familiarity and comfort can actually be understood as an essence of rock not the exception.  Before attempting the canonical endeavor critics and historians must make peace with these truths.

One of the figures referenced by Hepworth, but only briefly, is Linda Ronstadt who released an album of the same name in 1971. Alas, she’s grown a lot since it debuted 45 years ago. Growing up in Arizona she heard a lot of pop, country and folk songs on the radio, and as the child of a half-Mexican father she and her brothers grew up singing Mexican folk music. She began her solo career singing a blend of folk, country, and rock songs. She expended her repertoire here and there but from 1974-82, after 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel made her a star she made mostly popular albums with an enjoyable but fairly interchangeable aesthetic approach.

Suddenly, in 1983, after performing in the Public Theatre’s production of Pirates of Penzance, which required some additional vocal training, she recorded three albums of pre-rock standards with Nelson Riddle. She followed these with a left-field passion project, an album of rancheros (1987’s Canciones de mi Padre). The set hit and she followed it with 1992’s Mas Canciones. A few years later she also explored Latin pop with Caribbean roots (1992’s Frenesi), and even made an album comprised of music written for the glass armonica 2002’s Cristal: Glass music Through the Ages. Her final recordings find her singing Cajun material on Evangeline: Made A Tribute to Cajun Music (2002) and Adieu False Heart with Ann Savoy (2006).  Though she made a regrettably bizarre “new wave”-ish rock (1980’s Mad Love) album she mostly eschewed commercial trends of the 1970s-2000s and followed her interests. Though some might dismiss her as a mere “pop” artist because she is not primarily a writer or instrumentalist, her talent is clear, her growth as an artist is demonstrable, and she does not have an embarrassing discography littered with distracting excursions evident among most of the artists Hepworth mentions.  A similar case could be made for artists like Elvis Costello, Etta James, k. d. lang, or Charlie Rich who have also pushed the form.  Their story is not as coherent as the story Never a Dull Moment attempts but speaks more to rock’s potential than fixating on rock’s past.

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The life and music of Michael Jackson

 

The Genius of Michael Jackson

By Steve Knopper

Scribner, 2015

 

When is your Michael Jackson moment?

 Mine happened very recently, and it surprised me. Though my very first rock concert was a family outing to see Jackson and his brothers on a 1984 Victory Tour stop in my hometown Jacksonville, Florida, watching Spike Lee’s celebratory Showtime documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall reminded me of what made Jackson special. As various figures ruminated on the sound of the “adult” Michael on 1979’s Off the Wall, including producer Quincy Jones, jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and producer Pharrell Williams I remembered that no one has ever communicated the balmy ethereality of “dream pop” with the same leanness he displays on “I Can’t Help It,”  “Rock With You,” and later ballads like “Human Nature” from Thriller and “Butterflies” from Invincible. He was not just a gifted crooner—he was one of pop music’s great romantics, a true believer.  Another key moment that looms for many is where they were on June 25, 2009 when they learned he was dead. I actually don’t remember where I was, but I recall not quite believing it at first.

 

As talented as his brothers were, Michael was always special. Steve Knopper’s 2015 book The Genius of Michael Jackson conveys this quality in multiple “discovery” passages where observers as disparate as Etta James, Kenny Gamble and Quincy Jones, who observed him at different phases of his life recall his advanced vocal qualities, curiosity and drive with remarkable consistency. In Knopper’s passages the young Michael is a hungry, curious pop culture sponge with a perfect ear and photographic memory. Evelyn LaHaie, who offered the Jackson 5 their first paid gig performing at hospitals and nursing homes, noted: “The very minute I saw that little child, Michael—oh my God! I fell in love with him…Michael was a star” (15). Legendary vocalist Etta James recalled watching Jackson watch her perform at the Apollo in 1968 and thinking “Now there’s a boy who wants to learn from the best, so one day he’s gonna be the best” (26). Young Michael synthesizes everything he sees and hears, from Singin’ in the Rain to James Brown, compartmentalizes it and releases it from safekeeping to realize his vision. Gradually, as he becomes the dominant musical icon of his time, leading rather than following, this steadfast commitment to entertainment at all costs morphs into manipulative tendencies and a bloated vision of performance more focused on technical grandeur than the raw emotion of his initial influences.

 Jackson’s fundamental duality—tender, guileless man-of-the-people striving for pure entertainment and controlling, driven perfectionist pursuing his idiosyncratic vision with stentorian zeal—is one of the strongest elements anchoring Knopper’s panoramic view of Jackson’s career.  By covering Jackson’s life, from the structurally depressed crime-ridden community of his Gary, Indiana home to his final days rehearsing for what was to be a grueling, but lucrative, set series of live engagements, offset by daily doses of lethal medicine intend to help him sleep, Knopper provides a panoply of information to form whatever thesis you choose about Jackson.

 Jackson is a common figure in the world of pop biographies. Most books written about him are instantly ephemeral fanbooks or anthologies of recycled stories with little insight or information. Knopper, comparatively, interviewed a spate of family friends, fellow performers, musicians, producers, promoters, and others close to Jackson over the course of several years.  Their firsthand accounts buttress the factual recitations and biographical elements Knopper details. The result is a family history, biography, insiders view, crime caper and travelogue through 40 years of fame. 

 As a longtime pop culture reporter Knopper’s aim is to provide readers with as much primary source details as possible, about the Jackson 5’s rigid pre-fame rehearsal regimen, Jackson’s relationship with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, the surfeit of children accusing Jackson of sexual molestation, to fill in the blanks. Rather than overtly challenging conventional wisdom, he offers a lot of insider information that gently illuminates elements of Jackson’s life, such as his temperament and sexuality, which allow readers to draw informed conclusions. His footnotes, which often provide amusing parenthetical details from interviewees and reveal contradictory accounts of certain events in Jackson’s life, are part of the fun.  Among the myriad of books on Jackson music critic Dave Marsh’s Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream and journalist/cultural critic Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson rank most highly for me. The Genius is not as insightful or reflective as either of these works, but it is an important factual companion and a useful addition to any syllabus on Jackson for its sheer scope.

 For example, Marsh renounces Jackson’s tendency to abstract his dancing as the result of magic and imagination by linking it to black performers from the chitlin’ circuit and other venues, who never became famous in the racially segregated entertainment industry. Marsh challenges the way Jackson intentionally downplays his ties to black culture to appear “universal” and deracialized when he owes his career to synthesizing of decades of African-American performing styles. Knopper is comparatively more interested in explaining the mechanics of who Jackson met to learn The Robot (popularized during the “Dancing Machine” days circa 1973) and the Moonwalk, and the story behind these. Knopper is more descriptive than analytical. As a book rich with data and light on bigger cultural insights readers are likely to learn as much about Jackson as possible, even when it feels like there’s more.

 The more Knopper delves into the economic conditions of Gary and the harsh discipline of Joe Jackson the clearer Jackson’s incessant drive as a youth becomes: he wanted to transcend his surroundings. Or, more bluntly, he wanted to get the hell away from Gary and distance himself from his pushy, overbearing father. These are all great motivations to reach the top of his craft and sell records. At 21 Jackson hired a separate lawyer and manger.

 Jackson’s obsession with the Technicolor dreams, movie star glamour, and manufactured fantasies of Hollywood films also makes sense. As a young person feverishly aspiring to make it in showbiz, and with little interest in school and limited time for anything outside of rehearsals or family rituals (the kids became devout Jehovah’s Witnesses), he had little to counterbalance the limited vision of life offered by Hollywood. Bill Davis, who produced and directed the Jacksons 1976-77 CBS variety show, noted Michael’s “constant study of Fred Astaire. He just endlessly practiced” (68). Jackson borrowed his white sock-black shoe look from Astaire to draw more attention to his feet. Michael believed in entertainment as salvation and pursued it devoutly.

 It’s hard not to be impressed by his perfectionist vocal tendencies as a young recording artist, his enterprising interest learning about producing and arranging from sound engineers and producers, and his humble, almost fawning approach to his elders. But underlying these episodes is my sense that his dreams morphed into a kind of calculating ambition that stymied him personally and artistically. While Off the Wall is universally viewed in the critical community as a breakthrough for him artistically, he was angry that it was not nominated for a Grammy as Album of the Year, and only won him the 1979 Grammy for Male R&B Vocal Performance. The subtext of Jackson’s anger was the artificial divide of black and white music, but the desire to crossover even further than he did with Off the Wall, a multiplatinum seller with four top 10 hits, is the main point, not activism. Thriller was his rejoinder to the Grammy slight. Not only was it state of the art pop music circa 1982, it became the biggest selling album of all time, spawned seven top ten hits, revolutionized the music video form, and won him 8 Grammies. Despite this it’s not clear if these achievements were worth it. He seemed to spend his whole career chasing its success, and even its success could not insulate him from criticism.

 Whereas Marsh and Jefferson note the backlash Jackson received when Thriller made him the most famous (black) man in the world Knopper is more content to capture the sheer phenomenon of it all. In doing so he misses a chance to reorient the critiques of the time to today’s cultural climate. Marsh’s discussion foresaw the damaging illusion of the pre-Obama “post-racial” mythology as embodied by Jackson’s claims to universality. Jackson may not have seen “color” but others did. This is inextricable from both the homophobic black macho rhetoric used by Louis Farrakhan and comedian Eddie Murphy who ridiculed Jackson in the ‘80s for being “sissified.” As well as the perverse sense of glee some prosecutors and journalists took in trying to “take Jackson down” the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, when Jackson was accused of molestation again. He reached cultural heights not yet reached and his identity was not a benign factor in how his ascent was received.

 There are also some factual errors. For example, Knopper constantly refers to Jackson’s hair as a mullet when it was actually a curl. He also says Jackson and producer Quincy Jones were inspired by a variety of soul and funk songs while making 1979’s Off the Wall. Among the songs he lists is Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”—a song released in 1983.

 Still, the book succeeds in letting readers into less well-known areas. Knopper details the labor Jackson took following up Thriller with Bad recounting the process in vivid detail including his fading relationship with Jones. Knopper says little about the folly of Jackson trying to top himself sales wise, but the colossally successful record-breaking Bad world tour affirms Jackson was still relevant. The author performs similar feats outlining the painstaking process of Dangerous, HIStory and the final new Jackson album Invincible. Some of the reasons Jackson only put out four albums proper from 1983-2001 was his pursuit of new sounds during a time when synthesized music was gaining stature and musical tastes began to lean toward harder sounds incongruent with his feathery voice and gentle sensibilities.

 Despite album titles like Bad and Dangerous, his attempts to appear traditionally masculine, including the botched first edition of the “Black and White” video (where he grabs his crotch and bashes in a car window) and his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley seem like distracting stunts. Years of productivity also seemed compromised by Jackson’s profligate spending, unfulfilled desires to make films, an addiction to painkillers that grew to a deadly level of dependency, and a lack of focus. In his last few years, exhausted from the trial and tabloid coverage and looming debts, Jackson was an isolated figure on the run, literally, bouncing from Bahrain to Ireland to Las Vegas to Virginia to New York with his children until he settled down during rehearsals for the This is It tour. He and his partners envisioned a spectacular comeback that would restore his finances and reassert his relevance. One senses that even if it had occurred it would not have been not enough for him.

 After Jackson’s death and the public coverage of his passing his family and estate were embroiled in a predictable tug-of-war. After he outgrew them they clamored for a piece of his fortune and this persisted during his death. Subsequently, his mother has served as a guardian for his children, Neverland Ranch was refurbished and sold, and a variety of lawsuits have surfaced. The estate has sustained itself through posthumous Jackson product including This is It featuring his final tour rehearsals which became a high-grossing concert film, and the albums of unreleased material, 2010’s Michael and 2014’s Xscape. Multiple interviewees dismiss these as shameless exploitation. Regarding the film Jackson’s makeup artist Karen Faye commented it was “made with Michael’s blood” (352). The albums went multi-platinum but garnered responses like “fucking disrespectful” from producer will.i.am, and “It should have all stayed in the vault” from Jackson’s former mentor and producer Quincy Jones.

 One can only imagine the next wave of product; there will surely be more. Despite Jackson’s devotion to his craft there is a rushed, sloppy quality to many of the artifacts of remembrance. From shoddy biographies to unrevealing TV “documentaries” to the uninspired “vault” recordings Jackson’s legacy has not been preserved with care. In this respect Lee’s documentary and Knopper’s book are among the stronger efforts to help us see Jackson as a human being rather than a mere product.   

 

Michael Jackson collage by zerriedeviantart.com.

Michael Jackson collage by zerriedeviantart.com.

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Confessing, obsessing and professing: Carly Simon bares her soul

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir

By Carly Simon

Flatiron Books, 2015

Image source: us.macmillan.com/boysinthetrees/carlysimon.

Image source: us.macmillan.com/boysinthetrees/carlysimon.

 Carly Simon's voice is a stand-in for some of our messiest feelings and most iconoclastic instincts. Unlike most “70's singer-songwriters” she is (lazily) compared to, she is actually extraordinary. Her slightly wobbly pitch, willingness to confess her vulnerabilities and insecurities, musical experimentation, and unabashed awkwardness are part of her charm. She is not easily categorized, and though her life has been tabloid fodder at times in her career, she remains not quite known.

 After reading her lucid memoir Boys in the Trees I hope listeners and critics retire the clichéd notion of “singer-songwriter" as a genre. Simon, along with Joni Mitchell and ex-husband James Taylor, is one of the main icons of the term. Yet, during her most tumultuous time emotionally (circa 1981 when her marriage to Taylor was reaching its nadir) she turned (mostly) to the words and music of Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Rodgers & Hart, and Stephen Sondheim to express her feelings on the standards album Torch.  She recorded 1990’s My Romance, 1997’s Film Noir, and 2005’s Moonlight Serenade, all standards albumsunder slightly less stressful circumstances, but my point is that she is as much a singer as she is a writer.

 This upends the singer-songwriter designation in a number of ways. When we use this generic descriptor as a genre it presupposes original songwriting as the distinguishing characteristic of the performer. Yet, like Simon, Mitchell has done a lot of covering in her career including recording a 1979 album of Charles Mingus’s melodies and releasing multiple torch song sets in the 2000s. Taylor has scored many of his bigger commercial hits covering Motown, Stax, Brill Building pop and rock ‘n’ roll oldies. In the 2000s he’s recorded two cover albums, several Christmas albums and only released two albums of new songs. Paul Simon is also considered a 1970's “singer-songwriter” and comparatively speaking, he has released almost entirely original suites of songs throughout his career.

 The notion of questioning music industry clichés is apt when assessing Carly Simon’s career. Unlike Mitchell, whose work has been saluted in jazz by Herbie Hancock, Ian Shaw and Tierney Sutton, her catalog has not yet generated album-length tributes. Her ex-husband, and occasional musical partner Taylor has released more platinum sellers (his greatest hits albums are big catalog sellers), he tours relentlessly thus regular expanding his audience, and like Mitchell, he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In essence, they have more critical respect than Carly Simon.

 This is an interesting reality as Carly Simon has continually dashed expectations in many regards musically, and her eloquent approach to her memoir is no exception. To my ears Mitchell’s last significant album was 1976’s Hejira, and Taylor has never topped the quality and consistency of 1970’s Sweet Baby James. Simon has a more eclectic and adventurous career. Even when Simon was releasing a succession of prototypical “singer-songwriter” sets from 1971-80 she recorded a lot of material distinctly tailored to her voice and persona. In other words despite her professed desire in her memoir for her early albums to serve as demos for other singers (“…I just want to sit back and write songs and be the composer-at-arms,” 188), the singularity of some of her songs is what makes her special. Her best material often transcends easy interpretation. This might seem like an insult, but when you think of the countless bland and unrevealing renditions of “Both Sides Now” and “Fire and Rain” recorded in the 70s and beyond it puts her work into relief.

In the late ‘70s Simon also began revealing new colors: The dashing James Bond anthem “Nobody Does it Better” (she didn’t write it) is an unusually athletic and sensual performance I can’t imagine Joni Mitchell (or Carole King or Melissa Manchester, or Karla Bonoff, or Wendy Waldman) singing. The warm R&B flavors she delivers on “You Belong to Me” is surprising and winning.   Torch is uneven but she sought out the treasures of pre-rock pop before most of her peers, and her rendition of Sondheim’s then new ballad “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily we Roll Along) is definitive.

 

Simon reasserted her relevance to popular music on this thoughtful 1987 album. Copyright © Arista Records.

Simon reasserted her relevance to popular music on this thoughtful 1987 album. Copyright © Arista Records.

Like a lot or pre-MTV singers she released her share of feckless trendy dance-pop before returning to her authentic sounds. In 1986 she released the beautiful movie theme “Coming Around Again” (from Heartburn) which was also the name of her “comeback” album. On this ballad heavy set she grew out of her adolescent fantasies and began authentically capturing the realities and anxieties of her generation about love and family as it reached middle age. Little of what her peers released at the time was even close sonically or thematically. Four hit singles and a platinum award later she released the brilliant Oscar winning film song “Let the River Run” (from Working Girl) which, as Jack Mauro’s liner notes of her 2002 Anthology noted, “It was written for Working Girl, and I can’t help but speculate on what the film’s theme might have drawn forth from other songwriters. At least several would have undoubtedly been career-issue specific” but “Carly Simon took her customary wide lens of viewing a scenario and got so far out she broke the zoom. She saw a story about a frustrated secretary’s struggle for recognition and saw aspirant who ever wanted something.”

 

Her 1990 album is a masterful meditation on growing up. Copyright © Arista Records.

Her 1990 album is a masterful meditation on growing up. Copyright © Arista Records.

1990’s Have You Seen Me Lately was more of an adult contemporary hit than a huge seller, but it built on Coming Around Again’s themes exploring aging and mortality even more gracefully. In the ensuing 25 years Simon has built a formidable discography comprised of standards albums and original pop songs, as well as interesting diversions. In addition to her attempt at opera (1994’s Romulus Hunt) and writing children’s books, she released a fantastic Brazilian inspired album 2007’s This Kind of Love, with songwriting contributions from Jimmy Webb, Wade Robson, and her children Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor. Though I would never think of Simon and samba together she sounds more vibrant and inspired than ever. Whereas Taylor trudges along with his steady but predictably mellow style, and Mitchell’s voice has become a withered, wizened character after decades of smoking, Simon’s rhythmic adaptions and harmonic flights feel both new and right for her.  

 

Simon integrated Brazilian rhythms and textures on this unexpected delight from 2007. Copyright © Hear Music.

Simon integrated Brazilian rhythms and textures on this unexpected delight from 2007. Copyright © Hear Music.

The Carly Simon common sense primer is as follows: Simon grew up the privileged daughter of a publishing maven. She questioned her bourgeoisie roots as part of a new vanguard of female singer-songwriters. She met James Taylor and they became one of pop’s premier celebrity couples before divorcing. She suffers from immense stage fright. She has had an up-and-down career—successful in the early ‘70s, declining in the mid ‘70s, picking up steam with a few hits in the late ‘70s, floundering in the early 80s and rebounding in the late 1980s, before becoming a “heritage” singer in the 1990s. This rough outline feels increasingly suspect when she tells the story. 

 Simon has long transcended the sensitive singer-songwriter-holding a guitar-mewling about lost love cliché.  She is, more than anything, a highly expressive emotional confessor. And if she sometimes reveals too much, and does so a bit messily at times its part of her idiosyncratic charm. Though several of her songs are bonafide anthems, the kinds of songs people inevitably sing when they’re on the radio or blaring at a baseball game, she is not the commercial populist her longevity might suggest. I would argue that in terms of quirkiness, eccentricity, idiosyncrasies and other short hand terms we use for singular talents she’s been more of an acquired taste than many of her peers. These qualities are important to keep in mind as you read Boys.

 Rather than writing a sprawling account of her entire life, reviewing the highs and lows of her musical career, or sharing platitudes, her memoir is a nuanced account of her emotional states during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, and her first marriage which ended in 1983. She organizes it into three sections, and it’s fitting the sections are labelled as “Books” because they feel carefully and tightly crafted. The same vulnerability characterizing her best lyrics shines through; regardless of who is in what Hall of Fame, or who won what Grammy, her writing reminds you she has a deft lyrical touch and a remarkable prowess with language.

 Book One: Carly is the insecure youngest daughter overshadowed by her sisters, seeking parental approval from her nouveau riche mother Andrea (“…Mommy must have often felt out of place….though her personality was bright, generous, animated, interested, tailor-made for the glamour and drumbeat wit that surrounded her. She often didn’t feel up to the conversation that tried to involve her,” 12) and her remote father Richard.  She paints a complex, but affectionate portrait of a charmed life defined by living with an extended family of relatives and visitors in to her parents’ Greenwich Village home (where she lived until 6) and their summer home in Stamford, Connecticut. As she describes it, “Half of the residents of 133 West Eleventh Street were musical…” (8). Her uncles Peter and Dutch, and her parents’ circle of mostly white friends is erudite, musical, and a natural inspiration to Simon, “Over time I would collect different sounds in my head, ways of hearing notes—a fourth here, a dominant seventh there, though back then certainly nothing had a name!—and harmonizing would come almost as easily to me as singing melody” (9). She affectionately describes how her mother’s suggestion that she sing to manage her childhood stammer, which began with singing a melody for “Pass the butter” at the dinner table (26).

 She courts their love desperately and receives only mild reciprocity. Regarding her father she notes, “My inability to get and keep Daddy’s attention, and the suspicion that of his four children I was the one he cared for least, was a problem I’d spend my life questioning and compensating for” (14). Beneath the surface lies a surfeit of dysfunctions, well beyond sibling rivalry. A family friend sexually abuses her from the age of 7-13. Her mother and father are increasingly distant from each other, and she eventually takes on a 19 year old lover Ronny, hired as a baby sitter for Carly’s brother Peter. Ronny disgusts Simon and her sisters, and her father is strangely silent and passive toward the ongoing affair. At some point she wants more from her father than just more attention from than her sisters. These emotional needs emerge as his health deteriorates and he is conned out of what would have been his fortune as the Simon in Simon & Schuster. Richards dies in 1960 after a series of heart attacks and mini-strokes. Carly’s relationship remains unresolved and informs her wrestling with “The Beast”: “…the feeling that I was never good enough, or loved enough…the Beast was my envious feelings about everything I worried about not being” (106).

 Book Two: Carly enrolls at Sarah Lawrence in 1961, but is barely present as she is busy cultivating her first serious relationship with Nick Delbanco, and developing her musical chops including learning chords and absorbing influences like Odetta, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole, and Harry Belfonte. By 1963 she and her sister Lucy have a budding folk music career performing in New York and New England as “The Simon Sisters” and record their first LP in 1964.

 In 1965 the Sisters get gigs in London and Carly takes up with a slick boyfriend Willie Donaldson. They leave eventually, break up the group, and after a period of odd jobs and indecision Simon begins her solo career. After a few false starts, notably a series of sexist encounters she experiences from male producers and musicians which disillusions her, she  collaborates on a few songs, notably “That’s the Way I’ve Heard it Should Be,” with her friend Jake Brackman. Simon sends out a demo and is (barely) added to the Elektra Records roster. Eventually her first album emerges, she garners a hit, and her career takes off.

 Book Three: As her star rises, with a second album and hit “Anticipation” under her belt, she is reacquainted with James Taylor who she first met (as “Jamie”) on the Vineyard as a teen. Enchanted by his music and haunting persona they meet after a concert and quickly become a couple. For the first time she feels paired with a fellow outsider whose tenderness and sensitivity complement her sensibility. On their first night together she notes, “It was the nicest contact I could ever know, could have ever asked for, or ever remember” (227).  Early into their relationship she figured out their attraction as “…James and I were linked together as strongly as we were not just because of love, and music, but because we were both troubled people trying our best to pass as normal” (240).

 In 1972 he wins the Grammy for Male Pop Vocal and she is recognized Best New Artist; they’re America’s first couple of pop music for a time. As they settle into marital bliss and build a household on Taylor’s eternally-in-progress Vineyard house, she begins to notice his mercurial moods and his publicly known substance abuse problems grow more apparent and toxic. Ever the professional, she soldiers on recording her most successful single (“You’re So Vain”) and album (No Secrets) in 1973, and has her first child Sally. Taylor’s career begins floundering around this time and he grows increasingly difficult and unreliable.

 This is amplified when their son Ben, who suffers a host of medical problems, is born. Overwhelmed by Taylor’s erratic presence and struggles with drugs Simon feels like a single parent. When she discovers various episodes of infidelity the marriage is permanently thrown askew. Through all of this she remains stubbornly in love, despite her better judgment, even going to the lengths of bribing someone to get keys to his New York apartment and going there directly to confront his mistress. Simon clearly tolerates a lot of dysfunction, but is equally honest about her neediness, idealism, and vengefulness. This includes her ambiguous relationship to Mick Jagger, a big source of struggle for Taylor, and her affair with sound engineer Scott Litt when she recorded 1980’s Come Upstairs.   

 The marriage sours and Taylor, who comes across as passive aggressive and conflict averse, eventually meets actress Kathryn Walker who he marries. According to Stephen Davis’s biography of Simon, More Room in a Broken Heart, she was convinced that Walker rather than Taylor was responsible for the legal divorce (he’s perceived as too passive), and frustrated that she got the sober version of Taylor after over a decade of marriage (314). Simon’s tone in the book’s final chapter and epilogue is surprisingly rueful instead of bitter toward Taylor, though you feel she has earned the right to feel burned. She reflects that, “Looking back I made lots of mistakes. I remember and have made peace with each one, just as I forgive James for anything he may have done or not done” (370). I doubt he would formally respond to Simon’s characterizations. He seems to have moved on (he has remarried twice and had additional children); she is striving for clarity: “I am not the type of person to let go of my past easily. My memory is too good” (367). 

 Readers looking for insights into her music, especially the inspirations for songs and her process will find plenty of material. But her scope is vaster than hagiography. I recommend Sheila Weller’s intertwined biography of Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell Girls Like Us (2008) or Davis’s biography for more musical coverage of her oeuvre.

 Boys in the Trees is more of a tone poem than a typical biography. It’s highly readable because, like her finest music, she’s unafraid to let you in and the result is more like a lengthy conversation between friends, with exciting pit stops, diversions, and confessions than a rote recitation. Like the artist, the story Boys in the Tree tells and the voice it affects, is extraordinary.    

 

COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Music, money, and Bunnies: Playboy’s adventures in popular music

Playboy Swings, a new entertainment history by Patty Farmer with contributions from pop music writer Will Friedwald, is primarily a nostalgic look back at mainstream showbiz of the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. The period Farmer chronicles hews closely to the last era when jazz and swing inspired pop dominated pop music, as well as the heyday of swanky cabaret rooms, lounges, and saloons that were proving grounds for generations of singers, musicians, and comedians. Playboy Swings is largely a collection of anecdotes employed throughout the nearly 400 page book which is divided into three Parts.

                                                                                       Cover image source: www.amazon.com

                                                                                       Cover image source: www.amazon.com

 This is probably the first book to attempt its mission to capture the role of music within the Playboy empire but its title fudges on its content. While the authors discuss musicians throughout the book’s initial focus is undermined by a diffuse attempt to cover virtually every enterprise Playboy explored including clubs and resorts, as well as overly long profiles of comedians and “Bunnies.” The cover’s depiction of two trumpeters performing live and the title implies a strong tie to jazz-oriented music, but the book never quite delivers on the promise of its title feeling more like a rambling ballad than a pert swinger. Though the pages of Playboy promoted jazz as an important accouterments for its heterosexual male consumers in the 1950s it eventually altered its annual Jazz poll to a Jazz and Pop poll in 1968 and briefly released pop and country records on its record label.

 One of the book’s key tensions is its fuzzy attempt to champion racial politics while turning a blind eye to gender politics. The book overtly depicts the way Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner and the organization consciously challenged the racial segregation prominent in the entertainment industry of the time by supporting integration among performers. The book credibly argues that the magazine was one of the few magazines outside of the music community to profile black musicians.

 For example, in 1959 the Playboy organization hosted the first indoor jazz festival at the Chicago stadium and featured an integrated line-up or performers as well as a racially mixed audience. The magazine also profiled black musicians like Louis Armstrong. Playboy’s first TV show, Playboy Penthouse (filmed between 1959-61) featured black musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole on its premiere episode at a time when this was rare on TV. The 1968-69 iteration, Playboy After Dark featured Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis and other black musicians. Throughout the book Hefner is also pictured with a culturally diverse range of musicians, and many of the musicians interviewed noted their gratitude for opportunities to perform in (now defunct) Playboy Clubs and at the annual Playboy Jazz Festival.  

 But the book is strangely passive on Hefner’s gender politics. Much ink is devoted to the wholesomeness and training of Bunnies, and an entire chapter addresses actress/singer Lainie Kazan’s tenure as entertainment director in the L.A. Club in the 1970s. But these are mere consolations for the fact that the core of Playboy’s enterprise is the parade of women as consumable sexual objects for men. The authors deflect from the magazine’s prurient nature to emphasize the serious writers (Charles Beaumont) and artists (Shel Silverstein) it has published not to mention its editorial taste in musical coverage (i.e. reviews, profiles). In failing to acknowledge Playboy’s gendered reality Farmer and Friedwald fail to address basic questions like how peering at genitalia relates to serious ideas or music? Or more to the point why, was the objectification of women essential to getting people to read about such subjects? Why couldn’t Hefner make a serious magazine and forego the pin-ups?

 The authors are also strangely silent on the tacitly racist assumption that blacks and other racial minorities are acceptable onstage, a longstanding American assumption, but not considered for administrative roles. Few, if any, ethnic minorities are referenced when the book discusses the organization’s administrative staff. Anecdote after anecdote essentially celebrates the good ol’ boy network that ran Playboy’s business ventures with nary a mention of the racial and gender homogeneity. These contradictions undermine the book’s attempts to frame the magazine as progressive. I’m guessing they would have had less access to some of their interviewees (which does not include Hefner himself) had they addressed these issues.

 A reader could easily dismiss my political observations as the rantings of a liberal but there are murkier questions about the book’s intended audience. People seeking pornographic images can cruise the internet so a reader who pays for the magazine is probably a bit more intentional. Still, even a casual Playboy reader would probably have limited interest in Hefner’s politics or the book’s minutiae about Club décor, Bunny training or the Big Bunny airplane. Readers of the book drawn in by the title would find some fresh information such as co-founder Victor Lownes’s fascination with and promotion of Welsh cabaret singer Mabel Mercer and the impressive number of major musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald who performed in various Playboy sponsored mediums including festivals, clubs, and television. A book focused primarily on this aspect would have been fascinating, but the coverage is uneven.

 There are abundant stories from observers about performers; as an oral history there are some genuinely juicy excerpts. Too frequently they feature non-descriptive language or are presented more as a litany than with insight into what was sung or played and why it was amazing. This gives the book a “you had to be there” feeling rather than illuminating something specific about the musicians themselves.

 Aficionados of Playboy history and/or ‘60s showbiz culture will relish many of the stories, though their often unedited feel might test even their patience. Part One is a relatively brisk overview of the magazine’s founding, Hefner’s interest in integration, and his love for jazz. But Part Two: Swinging at the Clubs’ roll call of the founding, décor, staff training, and other elements of Playboy Clubs in major cities is numbing. By the time it reaches discussions of short-lived Playboy Resorts in Lake Geneva and Jamaica you wonder why it has veered away so far from discussions of music as opposed to business or scenes.

 Another challenge rests in the book’s underdeveloped discussion of Hefner. Though he is the founder of the “brand” and his name is in the cover’s subtitle Part One’s initial discussion of him is never really fleshed out. The book provides generic information on his escape from his repressed mid-western Methodist family, and you learn about how he mortgaged his house to found the magazine, as well as his integrative actions. But you get little insight into him as a person. Did he leave home for sexual repression only or did he object to the racial politics of his home community? When and where did his attitudes develop? When did he develop his taste for jazz? Did he really love jazz or was it just a symbol of sophisticated taste?  Does he relate to the musicians pictured in the book or are they just celebrity friends? By not probing these questions you’re left with a remote impression of the mogul who has little presence in the book’s central chapters aside from appearing on a Playboy TV show or figuring out the next deal. Though several people close to him (i.e. Assistant Editor Albert Podell) note he was initially aspirational rather than truly sophisticated this is never probed thought it might actually illuminate something about the role of music in building Playboy’s brand.

 After introducing you to the basics, and wearing you down in the middle section, the book concludes in an almost elegiac tone in Part Three: The Beat Goes On. Though the middle discusses the Clubs in a mostly celebratory tone the final section recounts the management and financial issues that plagued most of the brand’s ventures beyond the magazine. The authors also espouse a somewhat naïve belief that Playboy’s brand within the live entertainment world was undermined by rock and disco, rather than the obsolescence of many of the performers who frequented the club. Freda Payne and Bobby Rydell are examples of artists whose talents were commercially and artistically viable in the recording industry for a specific era that has passed. Comparatively, the great Tony Bennett, a friend of Hefner and a frequenter of the brand’s Clubs and TV programming, took a break from recording in the ‘70s and came back in the mid-1980s because his skills transcend musical trends. The authors also allude to Playboy’s struggle to remain a unique (pornographic) brand with increased competition from other magazines like Penthouse. All of these rationales are shrouded in the pretense that Playboy, built on an empire of female objectification, represents a kinder, gentler era of entertainment. But one should not be fooled by the velvet, the lights, and the costumes.

 One of the more amusing pictures in the book features the great Sarah Vaughan standing at a table gathering food surrounded by Bunnies at the Chicago Playboy Club in 1961. There is no discussion in the book of what she sang, who was in her band at the time, or how the audience responded to Vaughan, perhaps the greatest of all jazz divas.  She is merely an accessory whose cachet can rub off on the brand’s main focus represented by the supposedly “wholesome” yet sexualized women surrounding her in ridiculous costumes (An interesting sidebar among the book’s minutiae: The New York Club briefly attempted to feature male Rabbits in the 1980s which flopped, according to the book, because it attracted gay men rather than the magazine and Club’s desired audience horny, well-heeled straight men).

 I can imagine a chronicler of cabaret culture seeking info on the rise of certain performers employing excerpts from Playboy Swings’s myriad anecdotes from various entertainment figures. But the book is an incomplete reading whose whole is less than promised. Like pornography itself it’s a shell of the real thing with limited insight into its actual subject.  

 

  

COPYRIGHT © 2015. VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Listening to Lady Day with fresh ears

Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth

By John Szwed

Viking, 2015

 

                                                  Copyright©2015 www.johnszwed.com.

                                                  Copyright©2015 www.johnszwed.com.

When I was a child the film Lady Sings the Blues (starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor) was the kind of movie broadcast on Saturday afternoons on local channels that showed syndicated programs and old movies years before Fox, UPN, and the WB took them over. I remember watching bits and pieces of the film over the years, but reading Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery led me to revisit my conceptions of Billie Holiday including re-watching Lady. Though film critics generally dismissed it as factually questionable and dramatically challenged (though most appreciated Diana Ross’s performance) I interpret the film as more of an impressionistic sketch of Holiday than an attempt to retell her life story. The film’s primary problem for me is not the melodrama, the composite characters, or even its historical liberties. It’s the lack of attention to the most compelling element of Holiday—the music. The film’s nightclub scenes present multiple opportunities to distinguish Holiday’s approach to popular songs from the other singers featured but the movie never digs into the music making it incomplete. 

 Though Holiday’s childhood, failed romances, and addictions are integral to her story, her music forms the nucleus of our interest in Lady Day. As much as the film might be faulted, countless biographies are as guilty as the film in perpetuating distorted visions of Holiday. 

 Musician, author, and former professor John Szwed delves into Holiday’s artistry with the freshest eyes and ears since Griffin in Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth. Both more and less than a traditional biography it’s a smart exegesis of previous clichés, rumors, and gossip employing authoritative primary sources bringing us closer to understanding who Billie Holiday was by focusing on her music and challenging commonsense about her life. Structurally, he divides his argument into “The Myth” (first three chapters) and “The Musician” (Chapters Four-Eight) sections.

 Chapter One reviews the back story of the oft-questioned 1956 Holiday autobiography Lady Sings the Blues which was co-written by Holiday with William Dufty. Here Szwed chiefly reveals Doubleday’s reservations about content and tone, Holiday’s concerns about compromising privacy, and divided critical responses, including explicit concerns from black critics about the image its sordid tales of addiction might project.

 Szwed’s key observation is Holiday’s role in crafting her mythology. Whether we consider her a reliable or unreliable narrator is moot—the point is she was savvy enough to understand her stature and to tell stories that reflected her desired perception from the public. Chapter Two delves further into the public removed from the book, notably white public figures like Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, and Tallulah Bankhead. Here again Szwed reiterates Holiday’s use of media, including magazines, to defend and redefine herself regarding addiction and recovery, racism, and financial issues among others. Holiday’s translation onscreen is also explored including Holiday’s disappointing role in New Orleans, her self-portrayal in the ‘50s TV series The Comeback Story, and her legendary performance on a 1957 episode of The Seven Lively Arts-Sound of Jazz.

 Unlike many singers of her generation there are limited cinematic and televisual representations of Holiday which further limits our access to her outside of music. What we have is mostly forgettable—Holiday traversing of an old Hollywood version of black servitude (she portrays a maid in the film) in the ‘40s, and a tacky re-enactment of her troubled life (Benny Goodman and others refused to participate) in the relatively new medium of television. Ironically, toward the end of her life as addiction ravages her voice, a single program manages to successfully capture her in her essence: singing with a stellar group of musicians.

 Comparing the magic captured in the 1957 clip with the 1972 film illuminates its lost potential. As Szwed notes, an adaption of the biography was in the works for decades until Motown finally seized it more as an opportunity to make profitable entertainment than a musical portrait. Though Szwed dismisses Ross’s singing (“far from Holiday’s technically in its phrasing and rhythmic feel”) I enjoy the loose, woozy quality of her singing in the film and on the popular soundtrack. Again, she approaches the character through homage more than imitation giving her room to bask in the screenplay’s liberties such as her warm relationship to “Piano Man” played by Richard Pryor. While she is not Holiday there’s a fleet gleeful quality to her vocal performances afforded by the greater rhythmic freedom of the arrangements than her Motown material. I think Szwed dismisses the film a little too readily. If anything Ross’s vocal performance and vulnerable depiction conveys how even a great performer can struggle to capture Holiday.

 “The Myth” section, which concludes with a discussion of Holiday’s photographic imagery, is a lucid, engaging appetizer for Szwed’s main course—an intimate discussion of her musical genius in “The Musician.” Unlike a lay critic he moves beyond generic descriptors of her style to technically informed but accessible analyses of what she does musically and why it is notable. 

 Szwed draws a map of the female singing traditions that preceded Holiday in Chapter Four including the racially problematic minstrelsy and “coon” songs genres, classic blues woman Ma Rainey, “red-hot mamas,” and flappers/coquettes. It is as excellent a review of pre-jazz popular singing as you’ll find. He primarily cites Ethel Waters, big band jazz singer Mildred Bailey, and cabaret diva Mabel Mercer as key influences from these eras on Holiday. He also explores the long held perception of Holiday as the quintessential torch singer comparing her to Libby Holman, Helen Morgan, and Edith Piaf. For those unfamiliar with this period his discussion is a convincing sketch, but even the most knowledgeable readers will learn something new and find Szwed’s intriguing discussion points stirring.

 The remaining three Chapters illuminate multiple, aspects of Holiday’s formidable technique. More than anything he illustrates why the greatest compliment instrumentalists and critics can offer jazz singers is to label them as musicians. He outlines her career in phases noting her role as a “jazz musician” at Columbia in swing-oriented small groups, as a “straight jazz singer” at Commodore Records and Decca when jazz was gaining stature as an art in the early ‘40s, a classicist in her Verve/Clef Records phase where she revisited her signature songs and added new songs, and a kind of parlando singer on her final two albums where she relied more on recitative than ever.

 Among his observations are her skill at controlling tempo; her discriminating use of vibrato; her mastery of microphone technique; her ability to adapt and revise her influences (notably Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith); her ability to recompose songs through shifting her emphasis on certain consonants and stressing certain syllables seamlessly in her performances; a cross-rhythmic approach to time illustrated through a transcription of her 1945 performance of “What is This Thing Called Love?” on Decca;  exceptional diction; her ability to weave mutual melodic lines and solo with musicians without clashing harmonically (most notably with saxophonist Lester Young); and mostly, her consistent ability to trigger emotions among listeners.

 Central to his analysis of Holiday is distinguishing the notion of “good” jazz songs from the way the most skilled performers bring jazz to their material. He illustrates this most eloquently in describing the way Holiday’s interpretation of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” improves the song. Notably, her version entails “detuning the melody, shifting the rhythmic accents around, and ignoring the moderator tempo indicated on the song’s original sheet music” (140) which established the blueprint for subsequent versions. Szwed also provides an array of examples of similar feats including Holiday’s subtle gestures on “It’s like reaching for the moon” and more radical choices on “I’ll Get By.”

 In addition to harvesting these aspects of Holiday’s art he demonstrates a fine breath of knowledge and insight in discussing the controversial roots of signature Holiday songs like “Strange Fruit”; comparing multiple versions of songs Holiday recorded throughout her career; and discussing her last two albums extensively, among other topics.

 Szwed’s structure builds genuine suspense by establishing elements of Holiday’s character and intelligence carefully, and piquing your interest in how she approaches music. His wise decision to devote five of the book’s eight chapters to Holiday’s music as vividly and comprehensively as he does is a feat of sound research, original thinking, and skillful writing. Placing her music at the center of his discussion truly makes her shine as the subject. And fulfills his aim “to shift the focus to her art” rather than the well-worn “tribulations and tragedy of her life” (197). Reading Billie Holiday the book instantly makes you want to listen and re-listen to Holiday the singer; both are in glorious harmony.

 

 COPYRIGHT ©2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

The melodies still linger on

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead Books, 2015

This past New Year’s Eve I stayed at home watching PBS instead of partying (I had the flu!). The contrast between the two programs I watched was interesting: One was New York Philharmonic New Year's Eve: A Gershwin Celebration a performance of the Gershwin repertoire ranging from classical pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue” to vocal performances of George Gershwins’s popular repertoire by actor-singer Norm Lewis and jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves all filmed live at Lincoln Center.  The next program was Michael Feinstein New Year's Eve at the Rainbow Room a cabaret style concert starring cabaret singer/pianist Michael Feinstein, and several guest vocalists including Broadway performers Christine Ebersole, Kelly O’Hara, Aaron Tveit (Catch Me if You Can), cabaret legend Marilyn Maye, and actor Darren Criss (Glee).

The vocal performances on the Gershwin special were uniformly excellent: Lewis’s soothing baritone and confident command of the stage exemplified the kind of tender 21st century virility he brought as Porgy in acclaimed 2012 Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess. Similarly, Reeves, who recently won her fifth Grammy in Vocal Jazz Performance, commanded her material gently embellishing Gershwin’s melodies with her signature warmth of tone, elegant enunciation, and rhythmic acuity. Gershwin could not have been in better hands.

The performances on the Feinstein special were generally successful on their own terms. Tveit had fun with “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”; Maye is always a pleasure to hear; and Feinstein has become a more confident and enjoyable performer over time, though I was not compelled by he and Criss’s renditions of Sinatra’s material and found his rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Ball of Fire” superfluous.  

What stood out for me from the Feinstein special was the emcee’s pretentious voiceover declaration that Feinstein was “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.” Though he began his career doing archival work with Ira Gershwin, and has dedicated much of his career to singing the pre-rock repertoire, including unreleased or rare songs, the Songbook’s songs have done a great job of selling themselves without such pretenses. As such he is really no more of an Ambassador to this kind of material than Lewis or Reeves who delivered the goods without the pretension.

The Great American Songbook is comprised of highly melodic, romantically themed material with broad harmonic ranges commonly written for musical theater and film beginning around the 1920s. This material had enough musical meat to be adapted widely by pop and jazz musicians, and was the bread and butter in the careers of many of American’s greatest singers for decades, including Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan, and Sinatra. Though it is commonly believed that rock ‘n’ roll “killed” the songs and composers who authored the Songbook this is simplistic and inaccurate.  Since the ‘70s rock era singers as disparate as Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart, and Queen Latifah/Dana Owens have had considerable commercial success releasing albums of “standards.” They arguably introduced these songs to new generations of listeners who may not normally purchase jazz or cabaret albums.

Fears that “quality” songs have disappeared from the pop landscape undoubtedly inspired Feinstein to found the Great American Songbook Foundation to keep the legacy of this material alive but again there’s no proof it was ever going to die, even if a decline in popularity was inevitable. These and other issues surface in journalist and professor Ben Yagoda’s The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. Yagoda is on more of a quest to trace the historical development of standards of the 1920-60s era to understand their unique artistic characteristics, their commercial dominance, and their gradual decline in the mainstream, than to argue that “standards” need to be preserved. He does so eloquently in eight chapters covering 1885-1965, but his discussion is somewhat unsatisfying and incomplete. As a U.S. music history primer it’s very readable and accessible; kudos to him for employing some fresh sources (i.e. songwriters Ray Evans’s and Carolyn Leigh’s archived papers) to tell this familiar story. But Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song:  The Great Innovators: 1900-1950 and Wilfrid Sheed’s The House that George Built have covered this territory well previously. For readers who already understand the basic shape of the music industry his Epilogue is actually more compelling.

                                                          Copyright © Riverhead Books, 2015.

 

                                                        Copyright © Riverhead Books, 2015.

The eight chapters address the music industry’s shift from dependence on sheet music sales (necessitating relatively simple songs amateur pianists could pay) to the rise of radio and its displacement by records. He also tracks the artistic maturation of musicals from revues to book musicals, and the race and class tensions between the licensing agencies ASCAP and BMI, which ultimately opened the door for regional and “ethnic” music to begin taking center stage in the 1940s. As he moves toward the conclusion he notes how by the late 1950s crooners fell out of favor at radio stations that increasingly targeted teenagers, depicts Hollywood’s waning interest in producing film musicals, and illustrates the declining appeal of Broadway to mass audiences. Each of these changes impacted American songcraft in some fashion which he addresses throughout the book.

But these chapters are a mere precursor for his stirring Epilogue which argues that by the 1950s “a space had been cleared in which a new sort of song could emerge…Rather than jazz, they came out of folk, country, rhythm and blues, and the blues itself. The beat was right there on the surface, inescapable. And the harmonic structures were simple, though not always simplistic.” (242). Over the course of 23 pages he notes often overlooked continuities between Tin Pan Alley and rock era fare, and cites some of the era’s greatest writers including Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson and The Beatles (“They took the tools and ideas of the 1957-1963 American songbook and exploded them in a glorious centrifugal cascade of melody and riveting vocals with a backbeat you couldn’t lose,” 262) to point out the emergence of a new songbook. Hopefully, Yagoda plans a sequel because this premise is more compelling than the backstory the other chapters detail even if they do so lovingly.

Despite the rhetorical reduction of rock ‘n’ roll to three chords and raw emotion composers like Bacharach, Newman, Webb, McCartney and Lennon, as well as Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan are hardly musical primitives. Within cabaret and vocal jazz, interpretive genres that have traditionally relied on the standards repertoire, songs by these “rock” composers are sung commonly enough that they are unremarkable. Bacharach-David, the Beatles, Dylan, Mitchell, Newman, Nyro, and Webb have all been saluted by album length tributes by multiple singers, as have Leonard Cohen and Motown. Songs by composers ranging from Janelle Monae to Radiohead to Rufus Wainwright have also found homes on the albums and in the concerts of contemporary interpretive singers as well. In 2005 Lea DeLaria’s Double Standards placed punk rock songs in jazz settings; progressive vocal artist Theo Bleckmann recorded the Kate Bush songbook album Hello Earth—The Music of Kate Bush in 2012, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before singers recast songs by respected writers like Rosanne Cash and Kurt Cobain. 

This diversification of repertoire illustrates an ongoing “canon-busting” by singers themselves that warrants a full-fledged study. They, more than other force, are determining what songs endure and they continually prove how songs from different eras born out of different sensibilities can co-exist. Additionally, the rise of singer-songwriters in jazz (i.e. Patricia Barber, Ann Hampton Callaway, René Marie) also challenges the commonsense view of the genre’s usual sources of repertoire. Yagoda’s The B-Side is a good conversation starter but there’s a lot more to be said about the changing shape of what constitutes a “classic” song.

 

COPYRIGHT ©2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

Struggling to be heard: Billy Eckstine’s fight to sing

Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine

By Cary Ginell

Hal Leonard Books, 2013

 My entree into Billy Eckstine’s career was Sarah Vaughan, his compatriot in pioneering modern jazz singing and setting the highest bar for vocal lusciousness. Though Eckstine’s robust baritone often reminds listeners of Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Hartman his cavernous vibrato is distinctly his and actually preceded the careers of these, and other black crooners. In Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine, writer and historian Cary Ginell depicts Eckstine as an unheralded pioneer of pre-rock pop for directing the first bebop orchestra, emerging as the first commercially viable black crooner (via his MGM recordings),  and emerging as perhaps the first cross-racial sex symbol in mainstream pop. While Eckstine’s artistry is highly regarded among jazz musicians, his efforts to connect commercially were always contentious. Each artistic triumph was met with resistance. Racism loomed particularly large in his efforts to make an impact as a musician and actor.

 

Copyright © 2013 Hal Leonard Books; Cover Photo © Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

Copyright © 2013 Hal Leonard Books; Cover Photo © Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

After singing with regional big bands Eckstine began his first step toward the national jazz scene singing with the Earl Hines Band. In addition to singing he recruited other musicians, including Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie.  Eckstine and Vaughan were present during the gestation of bebop, performing alongside instrumental pioneers like Gillespie and Charlie Parker. From 1944-47 he formed and led the first bebop orchestra but several members went solo and big bands were becoming too expensive to maintain. Though he made his initial commercial impact among black audiences in the early 1940s singing blues tunes like “Jelly, Jelly” and “Stormy Monday Blues,” he found the blues limited musically and really longed to sing romantic pop from the 1930s like Bing Crosby. Though he was not opposed to the blues he suspected the music industry of stereotyping black singers by limiting them to the genre.  He broke through this barrier at MGM with luscious renditions of quality standards recorded with top tier arrangers and musicians, a pattern he continued on his LPs for Mercury and Roulette Records. While he was commercially successful as a recording artist and live performer, many critics lamented his supposed shift from jazz to pop, a major contention for Eckstine who resented critics for fetishizing the romance of being a “cult” jazz artist.

 Ginell also reminds readers that he lacked the full-blown crossover appeal of his white counterparts like Sinatra. This was most evident in his stymied attempts to become a film star. The author notes an array of unfulfilled projects, many pairing him with Lena Horne, the other major black crossover star of the time, which never materialized. Additionally, an infamous 1950 Life magazine photo of a white female fan (one of many “Billysoxers”) resting her head laughing on Eckstine’s shoulder did not endear him to a racially divided America.

 Like many singers of his generation Eckstine’s popularity waned in the mid-1950s when he, and other jazz-oriented singers, awkwardly attempted to sing more youthful music usually with poor results artistically and commercially.  He was far more successful recording thematic LPs, including acclaimed sets like 1959’s Basie/Eckstine Inc. and 1960’s concert set No Cover, No Minimum. Eckstine also hit his stride as an entrepreneur through opening several businesses and he was one of the earliest blacks to find an audience in Las Vegas.

 Outside of his career Eckstine, who was raised in a loving family environment in Pittsburgh, was a family man who married twice and raised five children, including two stepsons. Eckstine knew he was a sex symbol and possessed a wandering eye, which ultimately ruined his first marriage, and complicated his second marriage to Carolle Eclkstine. While his adult children acknowledge his infidelities and their parents’ marital challenges in the book they clearly adore and respect him. The array of family photos and the Eckstine children’s comments are one of the book’s highlights. They illuminate Eckstine’s character including his affectionate nicknames for them, his close relationship to Martin Luther King Jr., and his exacting musical standards when his daughter Gina decided to sing. For him taking care of his family was the reward for crossing over to pop. As Eckstine himself vividly stated, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial…I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.”

 In the mid-1960s the commercial heyday of jazz-influenced pop was nearly over and Eckstine made a valiant attempt to stay current by shifting from middle-of the-road (MOR) pop to recording for the black music labels Motown and then Stax. Neither light funk, nor covers of soft rock hits suited him. He spent more time perfecting his golf game, spending time with family, and performing than seeking hits. His final albums were a 1978 Brazilian pop set Momento Brasiliero , 1984’s I Am a Singer, recorded for Kimbo Records, and a collaboration with arranger Benny Carter, 1986’s Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter that garnered him a Vocal Jazz Grammy nomination. In the early 1990s his health was failing and he passed in 1993. 

 Ginell’s brisk and highly readable account of Eckstine’s life and career succeeded in helping me concretize the scope of racism Eckstine navigated in his daily life and as a larger force that interfered with his artistic life.  As a vocalist, bandleader, and musician (he played valve trombone, trumpet, and guitar) Eckstine was arguably more advanced musically than most crooners of his generation. But unlike most of them, including Perry Como, and Sinatra, he had to work his way up through smaller independent labels before reaping the rewards of a major label. And many of his followers, such as Johnny Mathis, benefited more commercially from appropriating elements of his style than he ever achieved.  As a black man Eckstine also risked alienating his audience if he became too popular with white audiences (i.e. the Life photo). Nat “King” Cole experienced a somewhat similar fate when his pioneering variety series was cancelled after Southern stations refused to air as show where he socialized with white artists like Peggy Lee and sponsors were leery of controversy.

 Should the book ever reach a second edition I have a few suggestions. There are several distracting editing errors in the book. Though Ginell includes a rich array of information 188 pages seems short for covering such an important figure.  The book alludes to Eckstine’s pioneering role but I would have liked more discussion of ways his sound and repertoire has surfaced in the work of singers like Johnny Hartman, Roy Hamilton, Ed Townsend, Lou Rawls, Kevin Mahogany, and others.  For example, though the concluding chapter states, “Nobody has recorded a ‘Billy Eckstine Songbook Album’” this is not accurate. Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole recorded Freddy Sings Mr B. on HighNote in 2010.

 Despite these quibbles Ginell’s astute attention to racism and his argument that “Billy Eckstine’s talent was timeless” is indisputable. Though Eckstine’s music from the ‘40s is accessible through compilations, and several digital conversions of his Mercury and Roulette albums are in print, Mr. B prompted me to seek out some of his more obscure recordings like 1963’s Modern Sounds of Mr. B. My hope is that works like Ginell’s, and Cole’s musical tribute might lead a company like Mosaic Records or Real Gone Music to reissue more of his work. The trails Eckstine blazed have never fully received their proper notice and keeping his work in print seems like a minimal way to recognize his legacy, and inspire future titans.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Singing the colorline: “Ol’ Man River” and the politics of race

Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”? The Lives of an American Song

By Todd Decker

Oxford University Press, 2015

 One of the most entertaining moments I’ve heard on a recording is when Sarah Vaughan briefly breaks into laughter singing Ira Gershwin’s  lyric, “I’d give the world to be/Among the folks in D-I-X-I-E/Though my mammy’s waiting for me…” on her version of “Swanee” on 1982’s Gershwin Live! Vaughan, an African-American woman who was born in New Jersey in 1924, could not be further removed from the lyric’s ridiculously nostalgic lyrics. Vaughan, singing a live “songbook” album, surely included it for reportorial thoroughness rather than any deep personal relation. Though “Swanee” is a “classic” by virtue of being the Gershwins’ first hit, and being popularized by actor-singer Al Jolson in blackface in 1919, it was painfully anachronistic in 1982 and sounds even more so today. Rather changing the lyrics Vaughan signifies on the song, gently recognizing the irony of her singing this ode to a mythic South, and the moment passes.

 I thought of this moment reading about the myriad ways black singers have approached the standard “Ol Man River” in musicologist Todd Decker’s Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River? Black singers have spent generations trying to cross over and appeal to broad audiences, and detaching themselves from race is often the condition for gaining acceptance. “Ol’ Man River” is the rare song to refuse this at every turn. When you sing it you inherit its baggage based on what you keep and what you exclude.

 

                                                               Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. 

                                                               Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. 

“River” was originally written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for the pioneering musical Showboat. They wanted Paul Robeson to sing it originally but musical theater actor Jules Bledsoe premiered it on Broadway in 1927.  Robeson’s 1932 recording on Brunswick is considered definitive, and he immortalized it in the 1936 film version; interestingly, he almost never sang it as written originally. “River”’s lyrics depict the laments of black laborers to capture the black struggle to survive against white racial oppression. Lyrically, it is infamous for an opening verse that included the phrase, “Niggers all work on de Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play” which was changed later to “darkies” then “colored folk” by Hammerstein. At a certain point in the mid-1940s most white singers who included the verse sang, “Here we all work” and similar variations. The song is also famous for using dialect in its lyrics (i.e. “somethin’” instead of “something”), and for depicting what many listeners read as a condescending portrait of “noble suffering.”

 Musically its indelible melody and harmonically advanced structure has made it a musical showcase for vocalists who solidified it as a standard.  Decker describes how it is “built along an AABA pattern but Kern shaped the melody of each A phrase differently, slowly expanding the range of the song to peak at the end of the thirty-two bars. The song practically—indeed, physically—demands a big finish” (30). Hammerstein authorized multiple lyric changes over time, and the song’s structure has accommodated an astonishing range of changes, such as spoken passages and radical tempo changes. The song continually evokes the question of what makes a song “classic,” and for whom? Black singers seem to have responded to its soaring music, but also to have assumed some ownership of how blacks are understood in the lyric. White singers also seem drawn to the music, but the lyric’s appeal seems far more ambiguous. There is a spectrum of interpretive approaches that offer answers to these questions.

 I’m uncertain when I first heard the iconic standard “Ol Man River,” but it was probably when I was a kid and most likely on TV.  Like many American standards from the 1920s its evocative melody and potent themes pervade American pop and seem as old as music itself. Simultaneously, as a casual listener of various versions of this song over the decades, and as an African-American, it has always seemed dated formally and tonally.  Songs by composers like Stephen Foster, and other minstrel era writers, and songs with references to “mammies” (i.e. “Swanee”) and “darkies” (i.e. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”) are obviously outdated and yet still embarrass me and many black people in the present.  It’s hard to believe millions of listeners enjoyed this kind of material without wincing collectively.

When examining “Ol’ Man River”'s lyrics it’s hard not to ask: What the hell did its white authors know about the subjectivity of black laborers?   Of course the same question applies to other songwriters. For example, what did Harold Arlen really know about rainbows? What did the band Toto know about the continent of Africa? One potential answer is the artistic imperative toward metaphor, but also the desire to empathize and connect as much as humanly possible. The adaptation of “Summertime” (whose lyrics feature “mammy” but has frequently been altered to “mommy”) is another example of the empathic relational attempt. What is always at stake is Decker’s core point: “A song such as this can never be a ‘classic’: it’s too wrapped up in history to achieve any supposed universal expression—if indeed any piece of music can make such a claim (I don’t believe any can).” (25). As such he challenges readers to place the song, and others of its ilk, in a context rather than excusing the song on aesthetic grounds. He clearly appreciates the song’s advanced harmonics and its noble intention, but neither absolves the song from scrutiny.

 Decker’s provocatively titled book effectively tells the storied tale of the song’s formal origins and adaptations, especially during the “high season” of recordings and TV performances from 1958-the early 1970s. Central to his argument is the song’s rotational utility for multiple singers in multiple eras. For example, the black musical theater actor Bledsoe on (not Robeson) originated it on Broadway.

 Robeson rarely-to-never sang the full lyrics as written, and consciously adapted the songs to the political times. Two 1928 versions include a version recorded with the Paul Whiteman orchestra that shifts from the slow verse to a dance tempo, and the cast album version. These were followed by the lusher and more self-consciously serious 1932 version. But Robeson pushed the song in 1937 at a political rally in London altering “I’m tired of livin and feared of dyin’” to “I must keep struggling until I’m dyin.’” (39). These modifications paralleled Robeson’s outspoken objections to celebrity and the kinds of roles blacks were offered at the time. At a 1947 concert in Manhattan he altered his alteration to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’” and altered the verse on a 1947 version recorded for Columbia Records to distance himself from the song. This was followed by a more overt shift in a 1949 Tchaikovsky Hall concert he sang “You show a little grit/And you land in jail” rather than “Git a little drunk/And you land in jail” (42). Robeson continued modifying the song treating it as a folk song rather than a merely pretty star vehicle. His final performance of it came in 1958 years after he had been blacklisted.

 Comparatively, many instrumentalists ignored the seemingly “heavy” lyrics altogether, and several instrumental and vocal renditions (i.e. Bing Crosby’s 1928 version) treated the song as either a rhythm tune for dancing or as easy listening mood music. Classical singers and crooners were more ambitious, adapting the song to showcase their virtuosity and by association affirm their manliness. Though Decker analyzes a few white female singers he cites their renditions (i.e. Judy Garland) more for extending their public personae than making a political point about hard labor or the plight of working people, the two most common interpretive approaches employed by white interpreters.

 Black singers have tended to do more with the song for understandable reasons. Many sang it seriously and imbued its character with dignity, rather than wallowing in the lyric’s implicit “noble suffering” persona. Another common approach was a subversive angle, ranging from Robeson’s politically themed versions to Duke Ellington and Al Hibbler’s exaggerated 1951 absurdist rendition to Lou Rawls’s swinging 1963 soul version. The idea of blacks as nobly suffering in the mythic South countered the burgeoning political sensibility of blacks, especially urban blacks who spent much of the 20th century defining their own culture in their own voice, simultaneously rejecting external constructions.

 Decker’s nine chapter inquiry, which includes chapters dedicated to Robeson’s approaches, rhythmic versions, easy listening versions, TV performances, and others, effectively contrasts the ways musicians in pop, opera, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz have adapted and interpreted the song’s nuances. The author is a skilled musical and lyrical critic, and even when one disagrees with his readings, I appreciated the irresistible conversation he offered. There are so few contemporary songs that have anything at stake politically or emotionally that it’s genuinely surprising when a song warrants book-length coverage.

 The book’s title question is perhaps too big to answer but its provocations get at the inescapable force of race in popular music.  American blackness is so dense with history that Blacks predictably navigate race more carefully than any racial group. A politically fraught song like “Ol’ Man River” is bound to inspire complex responses.

 Some of the more notable renditions of the song, dense with political inflections include Robeson, Hibbler, Rawls, as well as  Ray Charles’s brilliant 1963 version cited by Decker as his favorite, Sammy Davis Jr’s 1969 TV rendition on The Hollywood Palace, and Aretha Franklin’s live 1994 TV version sung at the Clinton White House featuring an intro about her foremothers and forefathers  Each of these is an important touchstone of a racialized political moment.

 Whereas many white singers approach the song in a de-racialized, detached manner more focused on the song as a “classic” than its racial commentary black singers could not detach so easily.  Tellingly, many of the most significant black performers of the century (i.e. Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday) never performed or recorded the song. This is an area Decker could explore even further. The economic and social aspirations of black entertainers are inseparable from the larger reality that Americans more readily accepted blacks when politics, commentary, and other conscious acknowledgements of race were hidden. Respectability always looms in the background for black public figures. On the flipside, singing the song straight as a literal commentary happened even it if was probably impolitic within many black communities. Decker notes many oddly “backwards” versions of the song ranging from Bledsoe’s overly dramatic 1931 rendition to the Temptations’ 1969 TV special’s medley of “The Best Things in Life are Free/Swanee/ /Old Folks at Home/Ol’ Man River.”

 Decker avoids reducing the book to a simple racial polemic by legitimately probing how a white singer can take such a fraught text and make it meaningful. For many white singers it seems to function as a technical exercise for dramatic and vocal chops, and for others a blandly “nostalgic” tune evocative of the antebellum south. On instrumental versions, that yoke the song with tunes like “Dixie,” Decker notes how such readings negate the song’s intended meaning. More thoughtful renditions tacitly acknowledge race but struggle to make sense. For example, Sinatra goes from singing the song as though he is black in the 1940s to removing references to race in an attempt to make the song universal via a 1967 version substituting “here we all work while the rich folk play” (161).

 Decker wisely notes the folly of this: a white singer erasing the racial premise of the song is unearned privilege that misses the point of the song which is that specific people have had specific struggles in a racialized context.  This universalizing approach conveniently shifts the tune away from social divides toward something that makes the song easier for the singer to relate to and for audiences to “enjoy” guilt free.  No matter how skillfully a singer navigates the song Decker interrogates the implications of certain lyric changes such as “here we all work” which collapses all workers under one banner.

 The best examples of Decker’s critical prowess are his readings of Sinatra’s interpretations.  He shows how Sinatra changed the “darkies” lyric after Black press protests regarding his 1943 radio performance to “here we all work.” Though this was progressive there was still the thorny issue of how Sinatra positioned himself in the song. He avoided overdramatizing the part where the white boss shouts orders, but kept the lines where the protagonist sings “white folks play” and “white man boss” interpolating himself as one of the oppressed. This is an interesting gesture, but to this listener it’s ludicrous. In 1967, as the Black Power movement began altering the Civil Rights climate he took these lines out. For Decker, Sinatra’s primary contribution was musical, not lyrical—notably his ability to sing some of its bigger passages subtly, which instantly differentiated it from operatic renditions and theatrical versions. This grounded the song emotionally, and served the dual purpose of positioning Sinatra as a serious vocalist with skilled breath control and interpretive acumen, not just a crooner.

 The lingering critical question is how we can tell if a white singer’s rendition is intended as a show of solidarity (necessitating certain lyric changes to avoid silliness) or a convenient form of denial, masked as “universal” when racial references are removed; or if it’s always a mix of both?

 The individual renditions tell their own story, and while Decker shares his takes the questions themselves provide the reader with opportunities to evaluate these questions critically. As such Decker’s study is not just an appraisal or critique, but a genuine conversation about the art of interpretation. Taste, judgment, and context are as important as chops and intentions.  Decker praises Charles’s version which juxtaposes the cooing sounds of a white choir with Charles’s intense readings of the lyrics, including a repeated refrain of “I want you to know …” as a preface to several lyrics, three time. For Decker, “‘Ol’ Man River’ is given voice by a powerful black man using the powerful expressive tools of soul music while the song’s white audience not only listens but responds—as it turns out, uncomprehendingly” (203). He reads this call-and-response structure as an intentional comment from Charles about race notably, “black and white have lived side by side in the soundscapes of popular music history and the landscape of the nation” (203).  Even if you challenge this reading he taps into an undeniable power in Charles’s choice. Charles is saying something and it’s not polemical or apolitical but something closer to the recognizable truthfulness at the heart of soul music.

 COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The last word on Miss Peggy Lee

Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee

By James Gavin

Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014

 Peggy Lee’s main musical contribution to pop music came during her 1952-56 stint at Decca Records. Lee, who possessed a modest voice and a deft way with a phrase, was a minimalist whose “less is more” approach preceded the “cool” school of vocal singing that gained favor in the ‘50s (i.e. June Christy, Chris Connor). Her “orgiastic” arrangement of “Lover” angered composer Richard Rodgers but it was a hit in 1952 and has influenced most subsequent renditions.  1953’s Black Coffee (a 10” album later expanded to a 12” LP) established her as an important albums artist capable of executing a concept thoroughly and successfully, a pattern she continued during her second tenure at Capitol Records (1956-72). Though she had commercial successes at Columbia Records and hit singles during her first run at Capitol (1945-51) it was at Decca where her distinctive vocal persona blossomed and she became someone of interest to jazz listeners.

 During her return to Capitol she made some seminal recordings, notably 1958’s sensual “Fever,” and some enchanting influential ones as well (her original composition  1961’s “I Love Being Here with You,”  1957’s “Folks Who Live on the Hill,” 1969’s “Is that All there Is?”). Her recording career (1941-93) is, however, best understood as sporadic. In the late ‘60s, “Is That All There Is” aside, she began losing her taste and largely recorded rock and R&B songs incongruent with her voice in garish arrangements that clashed. It’s simple: she couldn’t give up pop.

 

Copyright © 2014. Atria/Simon & Schuster.

Copyright © 2014. Atria/Simon & Schuster.

James Gavin’s Is That All There Is? is the second major biography of Peggy Lee in eight years following Peter Richmond’s Fever published in 2006. As a book it expands on a lot of what Richmond revealed about Lee. Notably it reiterates Lee as a gifted singer whose deft musicality was of a piece with her sultry, highly cultivated image and persona. Similarly as its subtitle indicates, Gavin depicts Lee as an eccentric recluse whose insecurity, vanity, and mean streaks made her a difficult person. The greatest reveal of both is not that Lee was complicated—decades of “tell-all” biographies have long exposed gaps between star personae and actual personae; the takeaway for me is how fragile the legacies of singers on the pop/jazz axis actually are. The real question Is That All There Is raises is does Peggy Lee warrant so much biographical coverage? Arguably, Gavin’s book is so thorough it is definitive, and deserves to be the last word on Lee for awhile.

 Gavin is an excellent journalist and biographer who wrote a seminal account of New York cabaret life (Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret) and the most thorough overview of Lena Horne’s life and career with 2009’s Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. He covers Lee’s music even more authoritatively than Richmond, such as his discussion of her innovative use of Latin percussion on several ‘50s recordings. Gavin also details her masterfully seductive presence in the television medium. Though Richmond covers all the basics effectively Gavin writes in a more intimate style and seems to have had even greater access to behind-the-scenes stories. For example, in the opening chapters he provides a more complicated portrait of Lee’s childhood in North Dakota, especially regarding her relationship to her emotionally abusive stepmother. 

 He also gets his sources to share what happened literally and emotionally, which can be entertaining. The anecdotes he recounts from jazz singer Mark Murphy about meeting Lee, whom he idolized, as well as her curtness toward him after he rejected her advances are fascinating. Like his work on Horne he is a skillful storyteller who convinces you through vivid accounts of personal and professional situations and a natural narrative flow. Gavin also excels at placing Lee’s music within the cultural moment, including a lucid reflection on the contrast between “Fever” and ‘50s sexual politics, and a thematic yoking of music industry payola and the quiz show scandals to illustrate the era’s mendacious currents.  

  Gavin succeeds in provoking valid questions about the path singers of Lee’s generation made when confronted with the commercial risks of staying true to the jazz influenced pop milieu and the artistic risks of staying commercially relevant. His book, in concert with Richmond’s and critic Will Friedwald’s take on Lee (in 2010’s A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers), helped clarify for me how vanity is often more culpable for artists’ tarnishing their discographies than simple record industry greed or audience coarseness, even when these are factors.

 Though Lee first made her mark commercially in the 1940s in Benny Goodman’s band she is a beneficiary of the CD era and the digital age. After decades of hard-to-find rarities, like 1975’s Mirrors, you can finally access almost everything important that she recorded. Aside from her ‘40s and ‘50s boilerplate hits, which have been in print for years, I was especially excited when Capitol/EMI and Collector’s Choice reissued some of her ‘60s LPs in 2008 because I was curious how Lee—whom Friedwald has praised for her versatility with blues and R&B—handled rock and more modern pop songs. The results were mostly strained and disappointing. More to my liking was the gradual availability of ‘50s & ‘60s LPs (i.e. 1957’s The Man I Love; 1961’s Peggy at Basin Street East: The Unreleased Show, released in 2002) on iTunes, Amazon etc. where I could download individual Lee versions of songs and compile my own collections of Lee material.

 This is an enjoyable way to hear Lee sing one’s personal favorites but it only goes so far. Her arrangement preferences are consistent, maybe to a fault, and as deft as she was at crooning she lacks the range of colors Ella, Sarah, and other more elite jazz singers and the dynamism of pop singers like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Lee is an enjoyable talent but seems less transcendent when one listens extensively to her main influence Maxine Sullivan, and an even earlier precedent the sensual phraser Lee Wiley.

 If from 1941-65 Lee was a bonafide jazz influenced pop singer and recording artist, from 1965 onward she made a series of mostly (mis) calculations to stay current that backfired. By the time she reconnected with anything remotely in the jazz milieu in 1988 (on Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues) her vocal resources were seriously declining. Lee was a purveyor of mostly high quality pop for about 25 years but she—not rock ‘n’ roll, rock, or industry executives—shook up her legacy by straining for hipness and succumbing to unfortunate trends. As such she is more important as a skillful pop singer who worked in jazz settings than a vocal jazz innovator.

 This does not necessarily diminish her accomplishments or influence. She has written lyrics to several standard, or near-standard, tunes including “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “I Love Being Here with You,” “Where Can I Go without You,” and “I’m Gonna Go Fishin.’” Further, singers as diverse as Jeanie Bryson, Bette Midler, Jessica Molaskey, and Maria Muldaur have saluted her recordings.  But when you consider their emphasis on her ‘40s and ‘50s recordings it only amplifies that there is a very specific period her followers cite: the first 25 for more so than the last.

 It’s tempting to blame industry politics with diminishing the careers of pre-rock pop singers, and the downsizing of the genre. But commercial genres fluctuate naturally as do audience tastes. In the ‘60s jazz and pre-rock singers turned away from standards to record newer pop songs; in the 1990s and 2000s rock and soul singers turned to standards when their new songs failed to click with audiences. More importantly, a formidable group of jazz-oriented singers have defied the blame game clichés by scaling down. In the 1970s Fitzgerald and Vaughan left the frustrating world of pop labels and recorded for Pablo Records, an independent label founded by jazz producer Norman Granz.  Because they had already enjoyed pop careers and primarily made their living as performers in their autumn years their recordings were conceptual statements (Ella sings bossa nova! Sarah sings Ellington!) not attempts at populism. After recording a few soft rock sets for United Artists Rosemary Clooney gave up on pop and recorded for Concord Jazz, as did Mel Tormé. Maxine Sullivan (Lee’s main vocal influence) recorded for Audiophile, Concord and Harbinger. Helen Humes and Etta Jones recorded for Muse Records.

  After Lee left at Capitol in 1972, ending her recording career there with thundering covers of songs like “Spinning Wheel,” “Everyday People,” “Sing,” “The Long and Winding Road” and other hits of the day, she continued to chase the pop market even though she could have recorded for more artistically minded independent labels.  Post-Capitol Lee recorded the pop-soul mediocrity Let’s Love (Atlantic Records), the eccentric Leiber and Stoller written art song concept jumble Mirrors (A&M), and the  disco/funk flavored pop set of new and old songs Close Enough for Love (DRG). After a long fallow period, during which she wrote and starred in the disastrous autobiographical one woman Broadway show Peg, she recorded for the small indie label Music Masters label in 1988. There she recorded a fine blues set Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues. Her tight-lipped performance is a little off putting at first but it works contextually. It should have been her last recording. 1990’s The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring provided an opportunity to revisit her compositions; her voice was very subdued but masked by strings and the songs are of uneven quality. By 1992’s Love Held Lightly and 1993’s Moments like This (Chesky) she was a shadow of herself.

 Here lies the difference between Lee and Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Tormé etc.—they were improvisers and needed the meat provide by complex songs to work their magic. At Pablo, Fitzgerald and Vaughan gave up the pop radio spotlight but gained opportunities to record quality material in intimate settings appropriate for their voices. If Lee recorded for Pablo, or Audiophile, or Concord she could have enjoyed a few more decades of glory in more scaled down settings. This is precisely how Rosemary Clooney’s reputation transcended much of her ‘50s schlock and made her an important vocal artist from the late 1970s-early 2000s.

 Lee has achieved pop iconicity through recordings like “Black Coffee,” and “Fever,” her film work (Pete Kelly’s Blues and The Lady and the Tramp), and her iconic image. Reading Gavin’s account of Lee actually made me increasingly less interested in reading more about her than reflecting on how other singers of Lee’s vintage, like Kay Starr and Tormé (who Gavin mentions as a colleague-turned-rival for Lee), strike me as underrated.

 Starr was arguably one of the best blues-oriented jazz interpreters of her generation and her Capitol LPs from 1959-62 are, frankly, superior to Lee’s. Though she dabbled here and there in commercial country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she recorded a big band jazz set with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1968, a swinging jazz album (Back to the Roots) came in 1975, and she still soars on her final album 1986’s Live at Freddy’s. As of this writing she is entering her 93rd year; though jazz critics Gary Giddins and Friedwald have written fine essay length tributes to her art she is overdue for greater coverage. Tormé, like many peers, wanted to stay in the mainstream thus he endured some commercial compromises at Atlantic, Capitol, and Columbia, etc. But, like Clooney he got serious and found his stride at Concord and had a great second wind from the early '80s through his death.

 Other worthy singers who have kept jazz at the center of their artistic pursuits include the late Lorez Alexandria, Helen Humes, Maxine Sullivan, and Shirley Horn, as well as singers alive currently including Ernestine Anderson, Ernie Andrews, Andy Bey, Freddy Cole, Mark Murphy, and Carol Sloane.

 Music critics can easily point to the ways the music industry diminished the role of jazz influenced pop. But they are less critical of how the publishing industry is more interested in telling the stories of well-known pop icons from the jazz world than those who rarely-to-never crossed over. Is That All There?  is an entertaining and authoritative account of Lee’s life and career.  Her iconic status has been solidified but it’s important to remember the range of untold stories in vocal jazz remaining to be heard.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

A Reckoning for the Queen of Soul

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

By David Ritz

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

If “soul” is a decision to reveal rather than conceal Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has long deserved a thorough critical examination of her storied life and career. 1998’s facile autobiography From the Roots, written with biographer David Ritz, was definitely not it. As Ritz reveals in his 2014 Franklin biography Respect Franklin was very guarded about the depth of her story revealed in Roots and the result was a bland, willfully distorted depiction. As the primary writer Franklin spent more time describing food and outfits, and dismissing other singers, than she did discussing her most compelling asset—her musical talent.

                   Copyright © 2014 Little, Brown and Company

                   Copyright © 2014 Little, Brown and Company

She strangely breezed through her mother’s unexpected departure at the age of six, her teenage pregnancies, her father the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s controversial behavior, Columbia Records’ failure to mold her into a pop/jazz chanteuse, or even the ongoing pressure for an aging singer to remain relevant in the youth-driven pop market. Rather than letting you into her hopes, fears, and aspirations during these important intimate touchstones she withheld them. The resulting tale was slight and strangely soulless.

A complex singer deserves a commensurate biography. Mark Bego’s Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (originally published in 1989; revised in 2012) which primarily relies on secondary source materials, is an adequate chronological overview of her career including sales figures, awards, reviews and Franklin’s comments from interviews. Matt Dobkin wrote a briefer but more probing musical analysis of Franklin in his chronicle of the recording of her greatest album 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in a 2009 book of the same name. Dobkin sprinkled the book with insights on her career beyond this creative pinnacle but did not aspire to cover her entire life.

Ritz’s Respect goes further than any existing book in unpacking Franklin’s life and musical legacy. His unflinchingly honest portrait of Franklin—informed by Ritz’s interviews with her family, including her brother Cecil, sister Carolyn, and cousin and Franklin background singer Brenda Corbett, among others; her former booking agent Ruth Bowen; former record producers; and other singers (i.e. Ray Charles, Etta James, Carmen McRae)—is an honest, nuanced work that conveys multiple facets of her life. He presents her, warts and all, while still conveying fundamental respect for her artistic achievements. After reading the book I felt that Ritz’s introductory claim that “I have love and compassion for her as a sister and a believer. I stand in awe of her artistry” was credible.

Franklin publicly accused Ritz of writing a hatchet job. Based on his depiction of her as having controlling tendencies rooted in pride, vanity, and insecurity, this reaction is unsurprising. What Ritz does throughout Respect is walk readers through her life carefully exploring her family dynamics, chronicling her prodigious early musical gifts, and the ways these manifested in her first adult professional phase at Columbia Records.

Carmen McRae, Etta James, and producer Clyde Otis’s commentaries are particularly illuminating about her breakthrough moments and her struggle to gain an audience in the early ‘60s. From a musical perspective, it’s interesting how artists in other genres noticed and appreciated Franklin’s artistry, even though she was an unproven upstart.  Franklin should be grateful for this critical attention to the oft-maligned Columbia years; Ritz is one of the few writers to acknowledge that this was not an entirely fallow period.

He also covers her time recording her first Atlantic album (I Never Loved a Man) at Muscle Shoals thoroughly, including the vivid impressions producer Jerry Wexler and the studio’s musicians had to her advanced piano playing and arranging. Franklin’s ex-husband Ted White infamously clashed with some of the musicians and his tumultuous marriage to Franklin is addressed by a range of witnesses.

By the early ‘70s Franklin was the most consistently popular female singer of the late ‘60s-early 70s and a multi-Grammy award winning superstar. Despite her success her insecurities about her weight, and anxieties about other singers stealing her thunder, including her sisters and newer singers like Natalie Cole, started to creep into her public persona. This began a cycle of her periodic announcements about new business ventures and film roles that never came to fruition, fluff stories about Franklin’s diet and exercise regime,, and countless stories about unidentified men she was courting.  Each pointed toward an apparently pressing need to remain relevant. By the mid-70s her albums and singles were slipping in quality and sales. The story of her scooping Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle soundtrack from her sister Carolyn is especially harrowing. After that 1976 triumph her Atlantic Records period lapsed into obscurity.

Though these unscrupulous behaviors populate the book Ritz notes many episodes of generosity ranging from a series of donations to civil rights causes to Franklin giving her 1972 Grammy to the great R&B singer Esther Phillips as a gesture of acknowledgment. I suspect there’s enough gossip about Franklin from Ritz’s vast range of sources that he could have easily reduced Franklin to an emotionally challenged shrew. But tonally Respect is characterized by an ongoing passion for Franklin to triumph. As he states in the introduction he admires and respects Franklin deeply.

This sincerity remains especially important as he describes her declining career in the mid-to-late ‘70s and her rebound with trendier material at Arista Records in the early ‘80s. Ritz’s sources consistently note how Franklin’s resentment of other female singers intensified as a generation of new mega pop divas (i.e. Madonna, Whitney Houston) emerged.  She was often less than gracious competing with them rather than appreciating their good fortune.

Her desire to stay on top also leads her to fall under the commercial spell of record mogul and producer Clive Davis. He helped keep her current to a point but mostly steered her away from her gospel, blues and jazz roots toward pop ephemera. Though there is limited evidence of Davis acting as a Svengali in Franklin’s career the stylistic grab bag her Arista albums certainly evokes the kind of crass commercialism he trumpeted in his autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life.

As long as the industry showered her with awards (she won five Grammies from 1982-89) and reiterated her Queenly status the less able she was to view her own talents with clarity. Important personal issues shaping her life during the ‘80s included her struggle to find suitable relationship, her grief supporting her comatose father who was shot during a burglary and struggled through illness for years, and her anxieties about travel, which led to legal and financial issues.

If anything what emerges from Respect is the inability of talent itself to shield artists from the emotional minefields of life—relationships, family, career setbacks, etc. as well as its ability to sustain someone emotionally. Franklin appears as a dark, troubled, almost unknowable soul who channels her energies into her music. There is clearly immense pressure on her to be “Aretha Franklin”—a daunting task when one considers how difficult it would be for anyone to approximate the impact of “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Natural Woman”—seminal recordings made almost 40 years ago. Similarly, Franklin’s LPs were popular but never sold at the epic multi-million levels Madonna, Houston, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion once sold at their commercial heights.

Artistically, it’s hard not to agree with Wexler and Ritz’s point of view that Franklin could extend her stature by returning to the jazz standards she tackled at the beginning of her career. With her wealth of life experience and professional seasoning American Songbook standards seem like more suitable vehicles for her than the pop confections currently populating mainstream radio.   Giving up pop crossover efforts might restore her artistic mettle. Despite the late career triumph of “A Rose is Still a Rose” and special moments like her surprising performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammies and her dynamic 1998 VH1 Divas performance her best work seems long behind her. But this does not have to be the case.

In 2014 she released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, a cover album of songs popularized other female singers including nods to Etta James (“At Last”), The Supremes (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”), and Adele (“Rolling in the Deep”). Though some critics reviewed it favorably and it sold moderately well no one sees her versions as definitive and it is all rather perfunctory. Surely she he has more to offer us than a jazzy rehash of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” 

From Ritz’s account I sense that Franklin lacks clear artistic direction and suffers from an acute restlessness. Perhaps she needs an artistic mentor she can trust. Someone who can help her make smarter choices, but who is willing to be honest with her about the best ways to employ her voice (its diminished in range and power) and help her realize she does not need to compete with Katy Perry or Beyoncé.

If anything she might borrow a page from Natalie Cole a stylistic protégé of Franklin who has always given her respect even when Franklin was dismissive of her talents. Cole morphed from a slick pop-soul singer to a respected jazz-oriented interpreter in the early 1990s. Similarly, Franklin’s peer Barbra Streisand has recorded several artistically accomplished, commercially successful albums (2003’s The Movie Album, 2009’s Love is the Answer, and 2011’s What Matter Most) featuring adult material suited to her talents that bucks trends. Though Tony Bennett’s series of Duets albums may have run their course they paired him with (mostly) suitable partners (including Franklin) and found him a sizable audience.

Franklin deserves the respect she famously sang about, and Ritz provides it. He appreciates her art and makes the unusual choice to end the book with a deeply felt personal wish list to Franklin. Respect articulates complexity of her life and its haunting role in her music; it also offers a moral imperative for her to be fully present and authentic in both.

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Singing her own melody

Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan

By Ellen Johnson

Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

If you've never heard of the modern jazz singer Sheila Jordan it's understandable. 50 years ago jazz artists were on CBS; now they're on PBS. Further, every major record label featured a stable of jazz-influenced vocalist ranging from Lorez Alexandria to Nancy Wilson. Today vocal jazz is primarily the domain of independent labels like Blue Note, Concord Jazz, High Note, and Savoy Jazz. By the time Jordan debuted with 1962's classic album Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note) jazz was morphing from pop music to art music.  Unlike the modern jazz vocal pioneers who preceded her, notably Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, Jordan has always been situated firmly in the jazz milieu. There are no embarrassing novelty singles (or “singles” of any kind) in her discography. There is no schizophrenic discography of LPs split between lush romantic ballads aimed at a pop audience to contrast with sizzling improvisational records targeting the hip jazz audience.

 Jazz Child Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

 Jazz Child Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

  The conceptual possibilities of albums and the declining market for singles from pre-rock singers actually benefited Jordan artistically. Though jazz critics commonly lament the declining commercial role of jazz in the mainstream rock era commercial market, they sometimes forget to mention that modern jazz vocal performances were never really popular. Vaughan's classic self-titled 1954 album with trumpeter Clifford Brown did not get her on the charts; her lovely string laden albums of Gershwin tunes and a collection of songs from Broadway was her commercial bread and butter. Never mind that great jazz oriented pop singers like Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra, were never improvisers steeped in modern jazz, even when they worked with jazz arrangers and musicians.

Modern vocal jazz is specialized music by definition. Though many performers within this field, such as Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks and Anita O'Day, are highly entertaining and accessible their art requires a high level of skill, discipline, and creativity that can appear deceptively simple. As a leader and co-leader Jordan has recorded albums almost exclusively with jazz musicians in jazz arrangements for independent labels like Steeple Chase, ECM, Muse Records and High Note. Deeply inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker she is both a quintessential modern jazz vocalist artistically and truly independent commercially.

These observations about Jordan are just a few of those affirmed in the excellent new biography Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by author Ellen Johnson. As a performer and educator herself Johnson conveys a clear understanding of modern jazz artistically and historically. She developed a professional relationship with Jordan that blossomed into a friendship. This access gives her a unique window into Jordan's world--one populated by unreliable, troubled family members, gifted modern jazz pioneers, abusive male partners, admiring instrumental and vocal musicians, grateful students mentored by Jordan's teaching, and a community of friends including her daughter Tracey.

Though Jordan has shared aspects of her life in various articles and profiles (including a 1995 documentary Sheila Jordan: In the Voice of a Woman by Cade Bursell), Jazz Child is the most thorough synthesis of information on Jordan's life and career. Johnson interviewed Jordan from 2008-14 as well as 35 fellow musicians and acquaintances over the same period. She complements these firsthand observations with a range of record and concert reviews, and quotations from articles, plus she includes a thorough discography, videography, some of Jordan's lyrics and sheet music, and a bibliography.

Some of the more consistent themes that emerge about Jordan from these conversations are the profound impact of Parker's playing and his personal influence on Jordan's spirituality and musicality; her passion for social justice and equality; her pioneering role in the voice and bass duo format; her pervasive impact as a mentor and educator of vocalists; and a kindness and generosity that has made her a highly beloved musical partner, friend, teacher, and parent. The more you learn about her from anecdotes, concert reviews, and interviews the more you love and respect her. Hers is a story that needed to be told and kudos goes to Johnson for her warm, accessible prose. As modern jazz pioneers like Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Annie Ross, and Jordan age their memories and experiences warrant serious coverage; their stories are not just interesting, but essential to understand the possibilities of post-1950s American popular music.

Johnson, a first time author, structures the book somewhat unusually. The first six chapters tell Jordan's story chronologically, followed by six chapters that delve more deeply into topics introduced previously including Jordan's admiration of “Bird,” her refinement of the voice and bass format with bassists Arild Andersen, Cameron Brown, Harvie S, and Steve Swallow, and her innovative role as one of the first musicians to teach a vocal jazz course at the collegiate level, beginning in 1978 at City College of New York. This makes the last few chapters a bit redundant since we have already gotten the essence of Jordan. But, the more in-depth stories are interesting, the 22 page picture section, featuring photos from Jordan's personal collection are invaluable, and it's touching hearing successful former Jordan students like Theo Bleckmann, Jay Clayton, and Tierney Sutton, and peers like Sonny Rollins and Steve Swallow appraise Jordan's contributions.

 The story: Jordan (born Sheila Jeanette Dawson) was born to a single working teenaged mother in Detroit in 1928. Sheila's biological father left her mother who thought it was best for Sheila to grow up with her grandparents in the small coal mining town of Summerhull, Pennsylvania located in the Allegheny Mountains. Though her grandparents were better able to provide for her needs than her mother the family was among the poorest in a poor community and Jordan was subjected to cruel ridicule from teachers and students. Sadly her grandparents' alcoholism and emotional remoteness contributed greatly to Jordan's sense of isolation and abandonment. Jordan's childhood discovery of popular music, especially tunes from Your Hit Parade which she memorized easily, gave her an expressive outlet. She took piano lessons briefly, but excelled as a singer landing various singing opportunities on amateur hour radio shows and local contests from 1938-41. One of her most poignant musical experiences was the support of her high school teacher Mr. Rusher who encouraged her to develop her musical talents.  At 14 a conflict between Jordan's mother and grandparents led her to relocate to Detroit where a vibrant modern jazz scene was already developing.

Armed with a good ear, some performing experience, and an early mentor, the underage Jordan  made her way into Detroit's thriving jazz club scene after hearing a record of Charlie Parker and his Rebopper's “Now is the Time” on a jukebox at 15. She immediately immersed herself into Parker's oeuvre and learned his recordings by ear. His advanced rhythm changes appealed to her especially.

In addition to chronicling her early life clearly and thoroughly one of the book's highlights is Johnson's vivid description of the black club scene of 1940s Detroit as a modern jazz nucleus. Johnson recounts the scene at clubs like the Club Sudan and The Blue Bird Inn, venues where musicians performed modern jazz that also provided spaces for jazz musicians to jam and experiment. The racial tensions between blacks and whites in Detroit, informed by dejure segregation and laws banning interracial relationships made Detroit a dangerous place for black performers and white admirers like Jordan and her friends to co-exist. The book depicts multiple incidents of police harassment and racist ire spewed toward Jordan and her black musician friends. These experiences, coupled with her outsider status as a child, led Jordan to identify strongly with African-Americans and to advocate for equality throughout her life. Despite these dangers Jordan became a regular in the jazz scene and formed a modern jazz vocal group with Leroy Mitchell and Skeeter Spight called Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean. To support herself Jordan worked as a typist by day and lived the jazz lifestyle by night. When Parker and his band performed at Jazz at the Philharmonic Jordan sang in his ear and he complimented her on her “million dollar ears.”

 Jordan moved to New York City in 1952 where she continued work as a typist for an ad agency, rented an apartment in Gramercy Park, and became a 52nd street fixture. She befriended Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus who led her to study with pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano. As her musicality expanded in these settings she developed a relationship with Parker's pianist Duke Jordan whom she eventually married. They relocated from Brooklyn to 26th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and she hosted popular “loft” parties that were jam sessions for jazz musicians. On the darker side her personal life was rife with setbacks: Duke was a heroin addict and philanderer who abandoned Jordan during her pregnancy and Charlie Parker died in 1955 which devastated her. She also relocated once again landing on West 25th street off 9th Avenue where she raised her biracial daughter Tracey alone. Though they both endured racial harassment in various forms her daughter was a source of light. In 1958 Jordan got a standing singing gig at Greenwich Village’s Page Three where she met musicians like Dave Frishberg and Mark Murphy, and gained her greatest exposure.  In the early '60s she began working at the DDB ad agency (where she remained until the 2000s) and recorded vocals on two albums including a seminal 1962 version of “You Are My Sunshine” with musician and theorist George Russell who became a friend and mentor.

He was instrumental in getting her signed to Blue Note where in 1962 she became the first vocalist to record for the label. Among the classic performances recorded on Portrait of Sheila two of the most important were her voice and bass versions of “Dat Dere” and “Baltimore Oriole” which conveyed her deft ability to tell stories personally and her proficient navigation of the sparse format. 

Johnson thoroughly chronicles how Jordan had longed to record in this style since she first performed this way in 1954 and again in 1956 with bassist Swallow, but it was deemed too unorthodox and risky commercially. 13 years later she revisited this approach on several songs on her second album, Confirmation, and eventually recorded her first bass and voice album, Sheila with bassist Arild Andersen in 1977. During the 1960s and 1970s Jordan was a well-respected performer and an in-demand guest musician who recorded with jazz and classical musicians.  During the '70s she formed fruitful musical relationships with bassists Harvie S and Steve Swallow, and pianist Steve Kuhn. Other opportunities included teaching a pioneering vocal jazz seminar at City College, which led to an opportunity to teach in Graz, Austria beginning in the late 1980s. Jordan worked to balance these opportunities with motherhood and her administrative work. She also recounts a series of abusive relationships with men and her struggles with alcohol and eventually cocaine. After going through rehab she wrote the poignant song “The Crossing” which was also the title of her 1984 album recorded for Blackhawk. After only recording three albums from 1962-1977 Jordan became a prolific recording artist serving as a leader or co-leader on 10 albums from 1979-89, five in the 1990s, and seven in the 2000s. In other words, she plans to perform and teach as long as she can. Jordan is not particularly fond of recording studios; hence the high proportion of live recordings where one can hear her listening to her fellow musicians and witness her daring way with a song and her charming rapport with audiences.

I first learned about Jordan in the early 2000s from a friend who had studied classical and jazz music. He recommended I listen to Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, and Jordan to expand my understanding of vocal jazz. I remember buying Portrait and finding her small voice unusual but was intrigued by what she did with it. She was spare and daring, reconfiguring songs I thought I knew and helping me hear them differently. She was a thrilling, unheralded genius in my estimation and everything I read about her affirmed this view. Soon I became nearly obsessed with locating her albums at used record stores; her recordings were rare, precious, and unusual.

 Despite the immense respect she has earned among musicians, educators, and critics, who routinely praise her depth as an interpreter and improviser, Jordan has never crossed into the pop stratosphere. Nor has she received a nomination in the Vocal Jazz Performance category at the Grammys. Perhaps this is best, though, because she has never contorted herself for approval and has remained committed to Parker's modernist aesthetic. She has been recognized by those in the know including the 2006 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MACC) Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for Lifetime of Service and a 2012 NEA Jazz Masters award. These honors, along with the rich life story Johnson tells in Jazz Child confirms Jordan’s status as a master performer and mentor within vocal jazz who speaks to greater truths about the discipline, passion, dues paying, and humanity essential for anyone aspiring to earn the title of vocal artist.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.