Learning to Listen (LTL) Excerpt 11: Roy Hamilton: Star, pioneer, and misfit

As I write this there is an online petition for those who support the induction of black baritone Roy Hamilton (1929-69) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his influence on Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, and the Righteous Brothers this only seems fair. Hamilton’s classic versions of “Hurt” and “Unchained Melody” were popular hits for him and became, arguably, the definitive versions. If the purpose of institutions like the Hall is to recognize talented and influential performers Hamilton easily earns this distinction.

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Pop music is filled with classically trained male singers who have translated operatic technique into pop. These include Italianate balladeers like Mario Lanza, singing actors including Robert Goulet, Gordon MacRae, John Raitt and Paul Robeson, jazz-oriented singers like Johnny Hartman, and actual Italian crossover-pop acts like Andrea Bocelli. Though R&B music has its share of robust vocalists it is rarely associated with the refinement and technique native to the operatic tradition. Roy Hamilton was among the first commercially significant singers to challenge such a dichotomy. Hamilton began recording in 1954 when he scored an R&B and pop hit with his interpretation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which gained a new life when it went from being a show tune to a civil rights anthem during the early 1960s.

Hamilton, as I discuss in other chapters, represents the liminal position many black singers found themselves in during the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. Music was already racially segregated in the industry in the early 1950s when Hamilton began recording, and as rock ‘n’ roll grew more prominent music grew more socially divided into markets. R&B was for blacks, rock was for teenagers, and LPs were for adult buyers of classical, jazz, and Broadway music. Among the victims of these formulas were black singers who straddled the boundaries between pop, R&B, and jazz, which seem much clearer today than they did in the 1950s.

 Dinah Washington is commonly referred to as a jazz singer today, but she was actually the most prominent female vocalist in commercial R&B from late 1940s-early 1960s, as well as a respected jazz-oriented singer, and an accomplished interpreter of the classic blues.  Similarly performers like Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Ernestine Anderson, and Dakota Staton all began singing between the late 1950s and early 1960s and have all blurred (artificial) genre boundaries which limited their careers, with the exception of Wilson.  It may sound essentialist to say this, but my impression is that, at the time, black singers working in R&B, jazz and blues were viewed by black audiences as simply making black music—i.e. music made by black musicians which was important since in the era of segregation (and post-segregation) black culture was primarily marketed to black audiences through radio stations, stores, and performance venues aimed at blacks.

Hamilton is broadly considered an R&B singer since he was a black man, with a background in gospel music, whose greatest commercial successes appeared on the R&B singles chart. But in reality this tells little of his complicated story. Collectables Records has reissued his Epic recordings spanning from 1954-62 and they demand some serious questioning of what R&B and black pop can mean. The bulk of his Epic LPs are standards albums comprised of the kinds of songs Sinatra, Como, Eckstine, and Cole sang including Roy Hamilton, With All My Love, Come Out Swingin,’ Why Fight the Feeling?, and Soft ‘N’ Warm. The first is a mix of ballads and mid-tempo arrangements; the second is primarily lushly arranged ballads; Come and Why are big band swing sets, and Soft is a ballad set. As a vocalist Hamilton is interesting because he is too gospel to sound like a straight crooner, too polished to adhere to conventions of R&B voices of the time, more rhythmically conservative than a traditional jazz singer, and yet too mature to fit into the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and teen pop.  His focus on standard material was such that his two ventures outside of this are the overt genre sets Spirituals and the rock and R&B-oriented Mr. Rock ‘N’ Soul which still includes a fair share of standards. Hamilton’s confidence with some of popular music’s most harmonically complex pop ballads (“All the Thing You Are”) and swingers, and his comfort with gospel reflect his formal classical vocal training and his pre-fame gospel roots. Given this it’s not surprising that Rock ‘N’ Soul is his least convincing set. Hamilton is always professional and the set has some entertaining performances, but as a whole it feels overtly trendy.

The bonus tracks featured on some of his reissued LPs and the two singles collections You’ll Never Walk Alone and Golden Boy reveal the dual personality Epic was trying to create for him. Walk mixes classy ballad fare like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” “Unchained Melody,” and “If I Loved You” that reiterates the commercial relevance of this material even as rock ‘n’ roll was making commercial inroads. Golden Boy leans toward R&B material like “Hurt” (a hit for Timi Yuro in 1961), MOR (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”), and forgettable pop songs. The bonus tracks on his albums also tend toward trendy ephemeral material.

Source: amazon.com.

Source: amazon.com.

As a musical figure Hamilton has a strange place in pop historical lore. Though his robust vocal style and creamy timbre is evident in Presley, Wilson, and others he is not commonly referenced as his talent and influence would merit. He is referenced in Soul in the City, Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, and Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. He was featured in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, but was deleted from its most recent edition published in 2001. The recent reissues of his material explain his absence from the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide (updated in 2003 but with no Hamilton entry) and the Musichound R&B Guide (published 1998). His refined enunciation and phrasing, romantic sensibility, and penchant for smooth balladry and light swing is quite different from the kind of visceral R&B that has made R. Kelly, Usher, and other more recent figures popular.

Listening to his recordings it’s clear that he was talented, versatile, and influential but he’s a hard figure to place. His fate is similar to that of Ed Townsend. Townsend, who is best known for the 1959 pop and R&B hit “For Your Love,” was a smooth crooner with a big voice who loved singing with an orchestra. Though he is remembered as an R&B singer, the handful of albums he recorded for Capitol Records were not jukebox fare.  Rather they were lushly arranged orchestral renditions of popular standards. Townsend’s Capitol period was short and he never rebounded as a singer, though he became a successful songwriter.

It’s hard not to empathize with them since their respective legacies are endangered by the rigid generational, racial, and genre boundaries popular music has been adhering to since the beginning of commercial pop music, but that grew especially prominent during the 1950s. The rise of R&B made a space for gospel-influenced black performers to enter into the commercial mainstream. But pressures for black performers to either perform exclusively in this mode, or to tone down these elements to make them more marketable to white audiences is one of the great compromises in pop music that marginalizes less malleable talents. The brand of gentlemanly pop Hamilton and Townsend performed placed them out of vogue with rock ‘n’ roll and mainstream R&B which was unusual, especially for black performers from the mid-1960s onward [....]


For more information on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petition visit: http://royhamilton.net/

Check out this essay on Hamilton’s influence on Elvis Presley: http://www.elvisinfonet.com/presley_hamilton_spotlight.html



LTL Excerpt 3: Charlie Rich: A Listener’s Guide

(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)

The Scene: I was in the basement of Amherst Books chatting on the phone with a friend about a book I was about to purchase—Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway. I told my friend I was attracted to the book for several reasons. Most notably because it featured a chapter on Charlie Rich (1932-95) that was a sequel to Guralnick’s previous chapter in Down Home Blues, and he seemed to be the only writer who had successfully written about the complex musicianship of Rich.

I explained that I had been working on fragments of chapters on Rich for a two year period off-and-on and was excited by Guralnick’s chapters and of course a little jealous. My dilemma with Rich is that he is so well known for the countrypolitan material he recorded from the 1970s onward that it’s easy to overlook the rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and jazz material from earlier phases of his career. Rich’s musical career is both impressively eclectic and strangely incoherent. Whereas it’s fairly easy to divide Maria Muldaur or Aaron Neville’s wide ranging careers into phases or digestible chunks his career is too unsettled for this kind of tidiness. The burden here is on more on me than him, but it partially explains why he will always be underrated. No matter how hard one tries his career can never be condensed into a tight narrative.

Photo of Charlie Rich from Sun Studios by the author.

Photo of Charlie Rich from Sun Studios by the author.

If you begin with his Sun Records phase he can be understood as an excellent, almost prototypical rock ‘n’ roller. He did not affect the world like Elvis, but he was as talented, if not more so. Who knows what he could have achieved with a Sam Philips at his side? His late ‘50s-mid ‘60s work also features a strong R&B streak. Rich, more than Presley, Buddy Holly or other white rockers, was the most convincing and natural sounding synthesizer of black musical traditions in his singing. He manages to evoke aspects of African-American singing without ever sounding phony or imitative. This emotionally unguarded approach is the epitome of soul. A white singer singing R&B was not exactly a strong commercial prospect during a time of such commercial and cultural segregation. Rich is as good an R&B singer as anyone of his generation, but he was never going to crossover to a black record buying public without a miracle.  In the mid -1960s he recorded for Smash Records and bounced between labels for years.

He stumbled onto a commercially savvy formula in the ‘70s working with Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. Hits like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” solidified him as part of the country vanguard of the ‘70s. As happy as it may have been for him commercially it seems almost like a cruel joke for someone who had been exploring American music for so long and so fiercely to become famous for one thing.  As Guralnick noted in Lost Highway, “With success he was finally typed, as a country crooner, a kind of latter-day Jim Reeves, with access to the countrypolitan, easy-listening, and soft-rock audiences, and despite the subsequent sales of re-packagings of some of his earlier, and more idiosyncratic, offerings from RCA and Sun Records, countrypolitan was the label that stuck” (158).

The one exception to this countrypolitan phase is his superb 1976 gospel set Silver Lining. Gospel music forms the foundation of the blues and R&B, and serves as the root of what secular pop aspires to be tonally and emotionally. A singer who excels in this idiom usually has the tools to tackle most popular song forms. It’s no coincidence that great singers like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Patti Labelle and Whitney Houston have gospel roots. Rich’s natural ease with the classic spirituals signifies a deep connectedness to black culture, Southern music, and American Protestantism. Cultural eclecticism is in his roots; its unsurprising that he played and performed in a jazz band before he became a recording artist.

After his ‘70s commercial peak at Epic Rich recorded for RCA and Elektra. After a 12 year recording gap he recording his most notable album 1992’s Pictures and Paintings, featuring some of his most iconic songs and several soulful new compositions. After a career filled with brilliant songs and singles he finally recorded an album that fully showcased his impeccable command of America song idioms.  Sadly it was his last recording; Rich passed in 1995.

Since his death a series of compilations have sought to tell his story and convey the fullness of Rich’s formidable legacy. What follows is a listener’s guide to appreciating Rich. As much as I want to avoid a consumerist approach to discussing the artists in Learning to Listen his career is so wide-ranging that a playlist is the best way to access and appreciate the multitude of Rich variations.  My discussion is written mostly as informal notes on what I hear rather than in narrative form. 


The Very Best of Charlie Rich—Lonely Weekends (Collectables Records, 1999)

This 23-song collection captures Rich at his earliest commercial phase. The cliché that rock ‘n’ roll is essentially a mash-up of styles plays out throughout this compilation. Through his choices in composition and arrangement Rich’s passion for  gospel music, its offspring R&B, and the flavor of Southern music shines through.  There is an immense diversity of material even if most of it is recorded in the compact format typical of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll.

 “Lonely Weekends”—This rollicking tune, a hit for Rich and frequently covered by other artists, kicks things off.  Its buoyant rhythm, his soulful wail, and the fervent backgrounds define his rock ‘n’ roll style, as does the melancholic theme.

“Easy Money”—A honking sax frames the catchy rhythm on this sing-along tune. The song has a catchy hook with an anticipatory melody, an impassioned vocal and background vocals. The theme is easy latch onto; the arrangement sticks out.

“If You Knew”-A very simple country flavored love song with a loping rhythm and Rich’s earnest, sincere croon. There’s a nice 33 second piano solo showcasing Rich’s prowess.

“Caught in the Middle”—The tune initially sounds like ‘50s pop with echo-ey choral vocals, cutesy energy and skipping rhythm. The vocal betrays this somewhat given the subject matter—a man confused and devastated by a cheating lover. He concludes that his”… fate is to be just a lonely, lonely man.”

“Donna Lee”-Straight up rock ‘n’ roll with piano triplets, a galloping rhythmic attack and a snarling vocal. You can easily imagine Elvis covering this tune.

“Gonna Be Walkin’”-A shuffling rhythm similar to “Lonely Weekends” down to the background choir. Very similar chord progression; a retread of “Lonely.” The only main difference is a tasty electric guitar solo from 1:00-1:22 in a 2:26 minute song.

“Everything I Do is Wrong”-Shuffle rhythm, an echo laden vocal with a piano riff that builds up to the hook. The lyric is a tragicomic lament of a perpetual crew-up. A sax solo, with guitar accents comes in the middle before the song’s resolve.

“Philadelphia Baby”-A travel song that kicks off with double harmony vocals and echo. The protagonist travels by train to meet up with his girlfriend. The song is organized around the rush of anticipation.

“Blue Suede Shoes”-A warm, soulful version of the song. Driven by a pounding salon piano, including a brief solo.

“Goodbye Maryann”-A peppy rock n’ roll tune about love gone wrong.

“My Baby Done Left Me”-Pops open with an echo laden, declarative vocal—very reminiscent of Bill Haley with an R&B shuffle underneath, and dramatic stop rhythm to anchor the story’s heartache lyric.

“Rebound”-Charging, hip-shaking tale of romantic angst laced with the wish of revenge for the departing lover.

“Whirlwind”-Echo vocals with stop rhythm, quickly followed by fervent rock beat and bed of stark piano harmony. A rollicking piano solo punctuates the song’s rhythmic approach, joined by double handclaps. The song swells gradually echoing the intense lyric theme.

“Finally Found Out”-After a wicked laugh kicks things off Rich sings huskily about the comeuppance a former lover over a shuffling rhythm with a background choir. He reprises the laugh near the break, and ends with a laugh.

“I Need Your Love”-The rare song of yearning during this phase. He sings over what sounds like a mildly out-of-tune piano, over a slow shuffle. His singing has a nearly Italianate crooning sound with extended vowels and near-belting.

 “It’s Too Late”-A lament of a departed lover with a sympathetic choir and a lazy rhythm. There’s a string interlude with choral backing.

“Sittin and Thinkin’”-Rich reveals he’s gotten loaded and had a fight with a best friend. He admits his drinking usually gets him in trouble. The key is the lyric, “When I’m drinkin/I’m nobody’s friend.”

“There Won’t be Anymore”—Opens with blue piano chords, a ticking rhythm with itchy percussion, and a bluesy, boozy, lamentative vocal. 

“Big Man”-A gospel flavored tune that begins slowly with gospel piano and increases tempo into a hand clapping rhythm and a devotional vocal. Ironically though it’s a gospel song its one of the few songs in the collection without a choir.

“Who Will the Next Fool Be”—A blues piano, shuffling rhythm, and cooing background vocals set this song up as a blue tune. His soulful inflection, with slight echo, hooks you instantly.  This is one of the more mature and enduring songs in Rich’s canon; Bobby “Blue” Bland and Diane Schuur are among those who have interpreted the song…