Monthly Archives: November 2009

Cooking with Irma

There’s something about Irma Thomas’s voice, and her output from 1959 through 1966 that makes the time stirring pots over the stove and waiting for cakes and pies to finish a fun time….

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…maybe because she always sounded to me like someone that sang songs of pleasures, joy, pain, and sorrow while cooking food… the complexity of emotion pouring out of mouths, into speakers, into your brain, back out of your mouth as you sang along….

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and somehow that found its way into the delicious food you cook.

I almost have to always have music turned to something I feel, that I can zone out and space out along to as I cook (cooking being my therapy, my release, my mediatation) and there’s something complex about Irma’s voice…at the same time smooth and aloof yet gritty and in your face, evasive, but omnipresent at the same time….

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…since there’s a pot a boiling I’m just gonna tell you to create an Irma Thomas Channel on Pandora, and hope that it gives you in rapid succession “Break-A-Way” “It’s Starting to Get To Me Now” “Two Winters Long” and “Look Up (Whenever)” and tell me…. that sweet potato pie doesn’t up and slap ‘ya mamma tomorrow…

Live life in complexity, and be thankful for every different emotion pulsing through you.

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In Analysis of Florence Ballard’s Solo Career

Admittedly, I’m a big Florence Ballard fan when it comes to the legacy of The Supremes. To me the recordings done after her departure (or the songs that she recorded with the group where she’s buried in the mixdown, which includes their first #1 “Where Did Our Love Go”) Don’t sound as rich, multi-dimensional, complex (kinda like the deficiencies that Martha & The Vandellas suffered when Annette Beard left after “In My Lonely Room”).

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Part of the magic of the original Supremes line up was the vocal interplay and versatility, it wasn’t necessarily all about Diana Ross’s lead, but different emotions came through in the call & response and emphasis on group harmony between all 3 members, notably Florence’s piercing soprano interjections and Mary’s foggy alto adding shades and dimension to Diana’s aloof and girlish nasally (yet infinitely flexible) Soprano.

But, like there is a noticeable lack of Sparkle to a lot of recordings branded as Supremes songs after Florence’s departure, there’s also a little (to a lot) bit of magic missing to Florence’s Solo efforts for ABC records.

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The main fault I can think of is that ABC records (kinda like the assumptions The Beatles made about The Supremes “sound”) thought, by signing Ballard, they were getting a one woman Supreme. Put her in a recording booth and voila! something like “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” was gonna come out of her ass…

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They didn’t think to put solid songs in her hand (although her first single “It Doesn’t Matter How I Say It” is delightfully fluffy and spirited with imgainatively sexy,suggstive …as if *you* didn’t read candy dish=vagina too… yet campy lyrics and one thinks, had there been decent studio musicians really making it pop it coulda been something great), and hadn’t saddled her with uninspired covers of hit songs from the mid 1960s (altho she fares well on “Going Out Of My Head” and…oddly “It’s Not Unusual”).

Also, Florence herself, pregnant, nerves and self confidence shot over the last years events didn’t bring the Florence that was present in her few outings as a lead vocalist at Motown. There isn’t the gutbucket sass that she brought to early efforts like “Buttered Popcorn” & “Hey Baby” (and sass she taught to an unsure Gladys Horton while recording “Please Mr. Postman”) Nor did she bring the piercing clarity that she brought to standards like “People” or her duet w/Diana on “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered.”

The gutbucket came back, sounding like Etta James’s lil’ sister with more range for the next single, the proto disco Van “The Hustle” McCoy composed “Love Ain’t Love” b/w The “Oh Hi, Were gonna combine elements of Martha & The Vandellas “Honey Chile” with Gladys Knight & The Pips “End Of Our Road” “Forever Faithful” which, with a more sympathetic producer, Robert Bateman (who, in fact wrote The Supremes first single “I Want a Guy”) and a more authentic Motown rip off sound, seems like the direction she should have went in the first place. Then there’s the delightfully philly soul orientated “My Heart” that went unreleased at the time…sounding so 1972… in 1968….

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Unfortunately, by the time of the release she was 5 months pregnant with twins, and ABC was pretty much over trying to get a one woman Supreme out of someone that… really needed to be their own artist.

Which is where fate is so unkind to Florence. Other fallen heroines in 1960s soul got more shots than she ever did, despite her track record of success as a Supreme. Doris Troy and Ketty Lester immediately come to mind… even Margie Hendrix of The Raelettes had a more identifiable artistic stamp on her recordings before her demise from an overdose in 1966.

In a 40 year hindsight, altho it was a fallow time in female soul music success-wise (remember, this is the time the critically lauded Dusty In Memphis went unnoticed by biased music critics until the fall of 1970, by the time of which Dusty was working on her 3rd, and aborted LP for Atlantic Records), Maybe if more thought was put into her Solo efforts, maybe there’d be another story instead of the “Rock Opera Tragedy” that is the reality of The Supremes legacy.

Not saying some spit polished and ironed to the creases perfect productions would have solved *all* of Florence’s problems… but a little bit of care and consideration would have made things better…

The greatest tragedy is that we lost a unique voice that was apart of an American Institution…. when it really didn’t need to happen.

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Myirmidons of Melodrama: The Shangri-Las

4 white chicks, going fist to fist with the legacy of Soul Music, bringing their own Long Island twist on the Girl Group phenom, is how I think of The Shangri-Las….

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… wanna dispute me on their R&B credibility? When they toured during their heyday… Most often they were paired with The Marvelettes and Little Anthony & The Imperials.

Their tough Cambria Queens sound was enough to take the ace spot on the Charts away from “Baby Love.” Cutthroat. Tough. Don’t take no snuff…

…yet at the same time petulant white chicks too, They didn’t have to always present themselves in respectable feminine garb like Black Female Singers (No A frame skirts and pearls emulating Jackie Kennedy respectability for them) or as a case can be made, for their closeted lesbian contemporaries.

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At The core they were Mary and Elizabeth Weiss, And Marguerite and Mary Ann Ganser..two sets of sisters (The Gansers those twins that with the atom bomb shaped bouffants that really make for a forboding apperance), formed in 1962, they recorded for Spokane, being eventually noticed by Shadow Morton… who, under a challenge by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, came up with a 5 minute demo of “(Remember) Walking In The Sand” The doom ever-present in Mary’s lead selling the eventually cut down 2 1/2 minute version that peaked at #5… followed by *the* biker bad boy classic (and the only song that bitch slapped The Supremes in their flow of #1’s, as well “Come See About Me” among it’s many accomplishments, arm wrestled The Beatles “I Feel Fine” through the Christmas Holiday) “Leader of The Pack”

More moderate hits came, The excellently sassy and sexy “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” (Home of the line when I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in LUV…L-U-V), the dense uptown soul masterpiece “Out In The Streets” and a remake of “Give Us Your Blessings” kept them in the spotlight and on Shimvaree, Shindig and Hullabaloo through early 1965.

Then an ill advised “Back In My Arms” rip “Right Now and Not Later” froze at #99 pop (in my humble opinion it’s not a bad song, it was just not recorded at the same pace as Motown songs at the time, and just somehow seems longer)… the typical Shangri-La’s formula, the excellent “Train From Kansas City” being buried underneath… lead to something radical…

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The proto hip-hop rap about disappointing parents “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” with wails to mama, and how being parentless now, really, really sucks (shades of the Imitation of Lifebug pop up here too), which is tied to a more upbeat proto hip-hop ditty “Sophisticated Boom Boom” then… an ode to the boys shipping off to Vietnam “Long Live Our Love” that doesn’t seem all that optimistic that Johnny will return from the war (note the morose “When Johnny comes marching home” intro. Most unenthusiastic “hooray, hoorah” ever).

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Then… Red Bird Records ran up against “financial issues” (or the mob…depending on who you believe) leaving some good charted records, like their version of “He Cried” and the spoken word poetry (and learning to trust men again after a possible rape) classic “Past, Present, Future” stalled in the middle of the charts.. When Red Bird went out of business…. The Shangs searched for a label…and landed at the monolith that was Mercury records, and despite immediately releasing the beautiful “Sweet Sounds of Summer” and a ode to the Vets returning home in flag draped coffins “Take The Time” they were dead and buried as a group by 1968….

Then Mary Ann died mysteriously in 1970

Then Margie in 1996…

And recently Mary Weiss released the well done Dangerous Game CD in 2007… she’s reportedly working on something new for next year. I can’t wait.

Any girl group where this following bit of info is part of their legacy has to be awesome:

Mary Weiss attracted the FBI for transporting a firearm across state lines. In her defense, she said someone tried to break into her hotel room one night, and for protection she bought a pistol.

Hell Yes.

The Shangri-Las: Past, Present, Future.

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Buried Beneath The Wall of Sound: The Crystals

When we honestly think of the women associated with the Wall of Sound we immediately think Ronnie Spector, then Darlene Love…. then perhaps Cher… then the 7 or so women that made up The Crystals.

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Considering they were the female act under the aegis of Spector that had the most chart impact (having 6 top 40 hits, then again, 2 of them were technically Darlene Love and the Blossoms) and trace Spectors roots from being a brill building producer of post-doo wop glazed in a little bit more echo to magnificently dense masses of sound.

Formed in Brooklyn in late 1960, they were originally Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Dolores Kennibrew, Pasty Wright and Myrna Girard… soon however Girard got pregnant and Dolores (LaLa) Brooks was bought in as a 6th member, and after their first session Girard dropped out… hence the mega catholic glee choir via doo wop street corner sound on their first hit “(There’s No Other) Like My Baby” A nice piece of string sweetened late 50s styled Chantels celebration of a guy lead by Barbara.

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The flip (and intended A-side) “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” is more “modern” (Baion beat ripped from concurrent Drifters/Shirelles singles and all) and with a quizzically unsure lead by Patsy (with her endearing hunt for the actual note) that to me… works better than the hit.

Then came the socially conscious “Uptown” that was one of the first “realistic” depictions of urban 20something ethnic life to make the top 40 (Boyfriend goes downtown to Manhattan basically, toils in a thankless job, to return to an appreciative girlfriend back in the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn/Jersey where he’s a “king”)… then things turned amazingly sadistic with the next single “He Hit Me (and It felt like a kiss)” the lyrics equating domestic violence to true love were enough to get the song banned/pulled after… amazingly… the song started to become a hit (well…bubbling under the Billboard hot 100).

The debacle surrounding “He Hit Me” lead to Phil Spector buying out of his contract with Liberty records, and walking out the door with a song recorded by Vicki Carr… and originally intended for The Shirelles… “He’s A Rebel.” However The actual Crystals, after a year, we’re having serious issues with Spector: 1) The lack of Royalties from record sales 2) he preferring to put Barbara in the lead spot, altho she suffered from performance anxiety and 3) the grim artistic path he had recently set them on (including such lovely ditties as “Please Hurt Me” and “No One Ever Tells You”) so they refused to take the flight to LA…

….so Spector cut the song with Love and The Blossoms. And the record sailed to #1, and hurt feelings all around. Soon Spector released other material by Love and the Blossoms under Bob B. Soxx & The BlueJeans and under Love’s name, but on the road she and The Crystals would often be on the same bill…. a fiery 15 year old LaLa Brooks out front on songs Darlene lead… while Spector released another single with Love’s voice and the Crystals name as 1962 became 1963… “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” a rockin’ recession classic if there ever was one…

it almost got worse, as Darlene Love’s voice was originally the lead for the next Crystals single “Da Doo Ran Ran (When He Walked Me Home)” but, for whatever reason, he had LaLa debut on one of the biggest classics of the Girl Group Era… it was followed by (in my opinion) the perfect vision of everything right with the Wall of Sound “Then He Kissed Me” (which actually was a more massive hit in England, peaking at #2 versus the #6 pop it scored in the states).

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In all this confusion, Mary Thomas dropped out in 1963, to resurface as a member of Red Bird Girl Group The Butterflys (notable for their blueballs classic “Goodnight, Baby”) and after the completion of their contributions to the A Christmas Gift For You LP Patsy Wright dropped out too… to be replaced with Frances Collins, just in time for their British Tour…and two overblown, dense flop singles here in the states…”Little Boy” (Somehow LaLa’s lovely tart voice finds a way out of the madness) peaked at a sad #92 and “All Grown Up” (a stripped down rocker rushed to prevent The Exciters beating The Crystals version in the can for awhile) peaked at #98.

The Crystals, now adding the passing of the girl group torch to The Ronettes, despite making Spector the majority of his money… were furious, and bought out their contract by the end of 1964…after recording very little… and jumped labels to United Artists… now as a trio…as Barbara retired from the group….

…other than a few appearances on ABC’sWhere The Action Is lip syncing to their Phil Spector hits (kinda the same weird thing that happened to Mary Wells at the time, no attention paid to their current singles, and forced to sing their hits from 2-3 years before for no apparent reason, other than their obvious designation as rock and roll classics) and a few good Northern Soul/Motown influenced moments like “Are You Trying To Get Rid of Me Baby” they were…. gone… by 1968.

In general these days it’s Phil Spector that gets all the credit for being the crazy genius behind the music, but I have to agree withy an assertion that Darlene Love made about him: Would his records sold as instrumentals, like Joe Meek’s production of “Telstar?” The unsureness of Barbara’s lead on the first songs, and The cockiness and straightforwardness of LaLa on the later songs sold the songs (that didn’t work against their vocal talents) like hotcakes…..

Gotta give it to the girls. The could tell it like it is…

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Songs that should go die #3: Take A Letter Maria

Gawd this song is sooo…awful…

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I read this argument in celebration of the song years ago:

The 1969 smash “Take A Letter, Maria” was R.B. Greaves’ one hit, and a fine one it is. Soulful enough for the Stax/Volt purists (Greaves sounds more like the late Otis Redding than his uncle Sam Cooke), but with an uptown pop gloss that made it sound equally at home next to the middle-of-the-road likes of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” “Take A Letter Maria” is a pinnacle of what used to be known somewhat derisively as supper-club soul, with a semi-funky rhythm section duking it out with a high-register horn section that wouldn’t be out of place on a Herb Alpert record. The lyrics are particularly interesting in this context, the story of a businessman instructing his secretary to contact his unfaithful wife and his lawyer, and ending — as such a story must in those days of three-martini lunches and tales of extracurricular secretary-boss hijinks — with the businessman asking his secretary out on a date. As Robert Christgau astutely pointed out in an essay reprinted in his anthology Any Old Way You Use It, it could be taken as something of a civil rights victory that this John Updike-like story of upper-middle-class suburban angst could be sung so convincingly by a black man.

Civil Rights Victory my ass. The dude is a lecherous boss of the late 1960s, whether his hair was in an afro or a pompadour. How is he any better than fictional middle class white men like Larry Tate oogling secretaries on Bewitched or Pete Campbell on Mad Men. Like, are we supposed to be proud of dude waiting to at least initiate divorce proceedings before boning his secretary.

This isn’t super club soul, it’s very much low budget sleaze porn soul starring whatever black guy woulda been the equivalent of Ron Jeremy or John Holmes in 1970s porn.

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Ridiculous Moment in Soul #2: I’m Living In Shame

So, after “Love Child” was an across the board smash for Diana Ross & The Andantes Supremes, detailing the pleas not to have sex before marriage, because, you know, sex before marriage always leads to pregnancy, just ask Bristol Palin….

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….They decided to follow up one soap opera on vinyl with a even grander one, one vaguely (ok, obviously) based on Douglas Sirk’s soapy remake of Imitation of Life (1959)…

Enter “I’m Living In Shame”

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We know the story of the movie: fair skinned able to pass daughter disassociates herself from dark mother to make it in the big white world as a self made woman, which breaks moms heart and mom dies of a broken heart. Perfect Melodramtic crap, that got Juanita Moore an Oscar nomination in 1959 for best supporting actress.

Perfect stuff to distill into a 3 minute Pop single for Diana Ross, right?

The pre-chorus of “Mama, can you hear me?” is actual dialogue from the film.

Actually, it was quite fitting.

By 1969 it was clear that Diana Ross was backstabbing her way to the top, so, in a good fit of “vinyl acting” most fans could readily assume that Diana Ross could be such an ingrate of a daughter, even if her and her mother actually had a fairly strong emotional bond from what all eyes could see (if we want to pick on Supremes with mother issues, we should dig through Mary Wilson’s emotional baggage).

The odd sincerity does work at odds with some serious ridiculous lyrics…

….notably: “Came the telegram, Mama Passed away making homemade jam”

Sorry…. but… even 40 years later…. ahahhahahahahahahhahahahhahaha.

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Scorpio Serenade: Baby Washington

Ok, I’m sorta an astrology buff, and one singer that to me reflects the magnetic, focused power of a Scorpio woman, a mythical Plutonian figure cast into a 45rpm record, it has to be the dark moody brood of Miss Justine “Baby” Washington.

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Born November 13th, 1940, she started off as one of the mythical beings shifted in and out of the Doo-Wop Girl Group outfit The Hearts (a shifting cast of many women under the control of Zell Sanders, the first African American female record company owner). She stepped out on her own in 1959, scoring her first solo hit, “The Time” and eventually moved on to Sue Records to cut many a moody dark classic, notably the first version of the world weary “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”

She was cited by Dusty Springfield as one of her top 5 influences in her shift from Folk & Roll to Blue Eyed Soul, and, like I said before there is something mystical, entrancing, and extremely intense about Baby Washington’s voice. It might have to do alot with her deep alto range, slightly wavy watery vibrato and sometimes deliberate phrasing… or the tendency for alot of her 1963-65 recordings to be bathed in a wash of intense strings…

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…or the fact that she’s a Scorpio, a astrological sign of fixed determination, death and rebirth. The Astrological sign of the Phoenix.

Sometimes listening to her songs, that Phoenix like determination comes through, like her sincerity to never, ever let go that comes through in “Whos Gonna Take Care of Me” and its follow-up “It’ll Never Be Over For Me.”

Slightly sounding like a shaman, a mystic from a parallel universe, or a Creole Witch Woman casting a voodoo spell on you, you can only sit by and listen, entranced under Baby’s spell.

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