Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Robert Lamm - The Bossa Project (2008)

Chicago's artistic conscience, Robert Lamm, has released his sixth solo CD and, unfortunately, the only people who have heard it are the band's loyal, longtime fans. Obscurity is the price paid by playing in a faceless band, especially one that receives little positive attention from the press.

Having realized far more than a blue moon ago that Chicago is now just a power ballad corporate paycheck that has long since jumped the musical shark, Lamm has released a series of solo works that expresses his chameleon-like musical muse. I know it has always annoyed him that Chicago no longer shares his idealism. Seldom does such a restless and creative talent such as Lamm remain with the same band for more than four decades but he is still there, playing keyboards and singing his Chicago songs, concert season after concert season. Whether he remains out of loyalty, the need for a meal ticket, or both, I haven't a clue. All I know is that he still makes interesting and enjoyable music on his own. His latest CD, The Bossa Project is no exception.

Lamm loves bossa nova and he has talked for several years about releasing an all bossa nova album. This year his talk finally turned into reality and that is a very good thing. In an unusual move, this classic rocker, who seems to love composing more than anything else he does musically, has only written two songs for the sessions. He covers several bossa standards including "A Man and A Woman," and "Aguas De Marco" ("Waters of March") very effectively. There are no surprises, just a disc full of well-played and well-sung songs. I disagree with Lamm's detractors who often criticize him for his borderline lounge-lizard vocal style. His voice is a perfect match for the music on this disc.

The cool thing about bossa nova is that it is almost always briskly paced without being loud and The Bossa Project is no exception. It's upbeat, yet smooth and classy. Lamm and producer John Van Epps do the genre proud.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Levi Stubbs R. I. P. (1936 - 2008)

Growing up in the 60s and listening to music on the radio meant I heard a lot of Motown. Berry Gordy's stable of stars were the first black musicians I was exposed to except for a few adult-oriented artists like Louie Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. To most kids their music wasn't cool, nor was it "black" in the same way Motown was considered black. The label's Stevie Wonder eventually became one of my all time favorite artists in the 70s, however, in the 60s, I preferred The Temptations, The Supremes, and the Four Tops.

The Temps had an earthier sound than The Tops and a case could be made that the latter's more polished records made them the male counterparts to The Supremes. The two groups were almost identical when it came to their instrumental arrangements and they shared the fabulous composing trio of Holland, Dozier, Holland who wrote most of the huge hits for both acts. The big difference was in their lead singers. While Diana Ross oozed smoothness and sex appeal, The Four Tops lead singer, Levi Stubbs, was a classic R & B shouter.

My first summer experience with Top 40 radio in 1965 was rewarded by the discovery of "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and the followup "It's The Same Old Song." I loved The Four Tops vocal harmonies and, until I listened to Stubbs, I never heard a male lead singer who could vocalize with such grit, soul, and class all at the same time. The combination made The Four Tops one of the most loved singing groups in 60s pop music.

All four original Tops sang together for over forty years. That's virtually unheard of in the music business. Stubbs, who died last week at age 72, suffered from both cancer and a stroke. The only reason he left the quartet in 2000 was because of his poor health. Sadly, as of today, only Abdul (Duke) Fakir remains alive.

So here's a great big thank you Mr. Stubbs. You'll be missed. "I've Got A Feeling" the "Same Old Song" will never sound the same.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

U. S. Postal Service Proves Anything Can Be Art

Music's grasp on society and culture is everywhere so for the second installment of The Musical Art Gallery let us take a brief look around the world to see how music has inspired other forms of art.

There are statues of Stevie Ray Vaughan in Austin, Texas, one of Michael Jackson on the Thames River in London, England, not far from Tower Bridge and The Tower Of London, and one of Freddy Mercury in Montreux, Switzerland. New York City's Central Park has a special garden dedicated to John Lennon named after his Beatles song, "Strawberry Fields." There is the gigantic mural painted on the wall of a building located at the main downtown intersection of Winslow, Arizona dedicated to the Eagles/Jackson Browne song, "Take It Easy." The wall in Winslow has already been written about here and I may cover some of the others mentioned above in the future.

Today, though, I'm featuring United States postage stamps. Some of you may have snickered or yawned when you read that statement, but don't. While you may never think of stamps as works of art some really fine music related paintings have been issued on American postage. Many would be suitable for framing if they were ever issued in sizes big enough to do so. Here are a few.

All stamps are © USPS. All Rights Reserved.
The biggest selling stamp in the history of The United States is this one featuring Elvis Presley. Before it was issued the public was given a choice between a picture of a jump-suited, Las Vegas era Elvis or the cool, 50s rock & roll rebel. My vote went to the winner seen here.

This is a very suave portrait of
The Chairman in his prime.

Here is a stamp of an early radio.

Finally, here is one of the Gershwin brothers.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Funky Kings - Funky Kings (1976)

The Funky Kings were a manufactured band, meaning the guys didn't get together themselves but at the behest of Clive Davis of Arista Records. The Kings were a short-lived sextet who recorded their one and only LP in 1976 for Davis and Arista. He was looking for another Eagles, the famous Southern California country rockers who were one of the most popular bands on the planet at the time. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. The Funky Kings recorded one self-titled album that failed to make the charts. When Arista passed on a second record, they disbanded. The record went out of print quickly and has never been released on CD.

Don't let their horrible moniker and even worse commercial success fool you. The Kings made a really fine album of mid-70s pop-rock and that is because, while they may not have succeeded as a unit, they were a band loaded with individual members who all went on to various degrees of musical success after the group was long forgotten.

There were three very talented songwriters. The best known at the time was Jack Tempchin who earlier wrote hits for The Eagles. "Peaceful Easy Feeling," and "Already Gone" are among them. Tempchin also contributed to The Eagles comeback album of 2007, Long Road Out Of Eden. He also wrote the Funky King's best known song, the original version of "Slow Dancing" a tune that became one of Johnny Rivers last big hits. Another writer was Jules Shear who later went on to a highly respected solo career after fronting Jules & the Polar Bears. Finally, there was Richard Stekol who has penned hits for Iain Matthews, Kim Carnes, and others.

The Funky Kings were rounded out by some fine instrumentalists led by Greg Leisz, who to this day, is one of the most sought after and highly respected session men in the business. Those of you with a lot of country-rock, folk, and singer-songwriters in your CD collection should take a look at the liner notes included with your discs. I guarantee you will find Leisz listed somewhere, usually on steel guitar or dobro. He has played with Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, k. d. Lang, Wilco, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Brian Wilson, and many others.

Finally, there were bassist Bill Bodine and drummer Frank Cotinola. Both have remained active in the music business in various capacities and Bodine has his own company, Bill Bodine Music, that writes music for TV, films, commercials, and other recording artists.

The music on this record is typical of the period. To my ears the platter often sounds more like 70s soft-rockers such as Firefall than anything ever produced by The Eagles. This self-titled album is a pleasant experience but it does not deliver the knockout punch you may expect from a band that possessed so much individual talent. It's too bad they never got another chance.

According to Stekol's website, Tempchin, referring to the Funky Kings, told him that, "he saw a quote by Clive that we were among his biggest regrets." Stekol does not offer a date for Tempchin's comments but they appear to be of fairly recent vintage.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Musical Art Gallery, Part One: Strange Fruit

The CD, Myths & Fables by jazz singer-pianist Bett Butler, was reviewed here earlier this year. The painting that graces the cover of her disc is called "Strange Fruit" and it is named, of course, after the famous and luridly vivid Billie Holiday song about racism. The cover is a colorful depiction of the infamous lynchings of Holiday's and Butler's people from a not too distant bygone era. A cursory look at this modern painting may not immediately make its intentions clear. However, once you know the story behind Holiday's song, and you look more closely at this work by artist Courtney Reid, the full meaning of her effort becomes painfully apparent.

"Strange Fruit" would even be more majestic gracing the cover of a full sized 33 1/3 RPM record jacket because in that format the cover would be suitable for framing. When CDs are gone for good paintings like "Strange Fruit" will have one less outlet for public exposure and a song like Butler's "Nothin' To Be Proud Of," from Myths & Fables may not get it's point across as well as it should, and that will be a real shame.

For those people who are unfamiliar with the song here are the lyrics to "Strange Fruit."

Finally, with the kind permission of Bett Butler the lyrics to "Nothin' To Be Proud Of" are posted below.

"Nothin’ To Be Proud Of" (music & lyrics by Bett Butler)

©2003 Baby Junior Publishing (BMI)

Now I was born and raised here
And I love these people, and I love this land
And I’m proud of who we are and what we’ve made here
But certain things I’m finding hard to understand

Comes a time we have to question what you’ve always been taught
Seems like things aren’t always simple black and white
Seems we’ve treated certain people badly in our time
Seems we haven’t always done what’s right


Ain’t nothin’ to be proud of
Ain’t nothin’ to be proud of
Ain’t nothin’ to be proud of
Ain’t nothin’ to be proud of

Now we are young as a country
Sometimes we act with the carelessness of youth
We think that we’re invincible, we can do no wrong
We make decisions not entirely based in truth

And it seems we’ve treated certain folks unfairly
Even while we claim that God is on our side
But I can’t help but think that God has much more sympathy
For people to whom justice was denied


Now different things mean different things to different people
Like the meaning of a symbol or a song
But rubbing salt into the wounds of people’s painful memories
How can we ever learn to get along


And we find it really hard to say we’re sorry
So the shadow of injustice still remains
We build monuments to those who died in battle
But we seldom speak of those who died in chains