Thursday, August 30, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Larry Williams

Piano playing, rock pioneer Larry Williams (1935 -1980) is virtually forgotten today except by the dwindling number of people who know him through The Beatles.

Williams won his fifteen minutes of fame in 1957 and 1958 by taking Little Richard Penniman's place at Specialty Records after the star quit rock 'n roll to become a minister. Specialty put a lot of work into grooming Williams to sound as similar to Little Richard as possible because of the potential they saw in him and because their big time cash cow was no longer on the label's roster.

In relatively quick fashion Williams scored two gold records with "Short Fat Fannie," and "Bony Moronie." "You Bug Me Baby" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" also charted but, unfortunately, his success in America didn't last. However, his career in the United Kingdom was a bit more enduring. There, he was popular enough to heavily influence the rockers of the original British Invasion.

John Lennon was a huge fan and he saw to it that during The Beatles' early years they put three of Williams' tunes on vinyl: "Slow Down," "Bad Boy," and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." Lennon released both "Bony Moronie" and "Just Because" (Williams first hit written by Lloyd Price) on his 1975 oldies album, Rock 'n Roll. The Rolling Stones covered, "She Said Yeah."

Living on the seedy side of life derailed Williams' career. He became a drug addict who was prone to violence. Specialty dropped him in 1959 for selling drugs and by 1960 he began a three year prison term. He was a good friend of Penniman's despite the fact he tried to kill the flamboyant pianist in 1977 over a bad drug deal. Eventually he took his own life at age 44 with a gunshot wound to the head.

Williams recorded quite a few singles but only one full length LP by the time he went to jail and his days of being in the limelight were over. He attempted two career revivals, one in the mid-60s and later near the end of the 70s. Both failed.

Musically, Williams work stands up to any of the era's biggest stars. He could play head banging piano, ballads too, and his vocal style was similar to that of his more famous label mate. He was just as comfortable covering other people's work as he was recording his own compositions.

You can still find an excellent compilation with all of Williams' best stuff on CD or in the mp3 format at Amazon and iTunes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Bucket List: Blood, Sweat & Tears - Child Is Father To The Man (1968)

Al Kooper had already established himself in the music business in several ways by the time he organized the eight piece horn-rock outfit, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He was a member of Bob Dylan's controversial band that went electric at Newport. He was an imporatant member of The Blues Project and the composer of Gary Lewis and The Playboys' hit, "This Diamond Ring." So, when BS&T's debut album, Child Is Father To The Man, was released in 1968 no one was surprised that, despite poor sales, it became one of the classic records of the late 60s.

Kooper's love of big band trumpeter Maynard Ferguson was the motivation behind his desire to form a rock band with a jazz aesthetic. The unit he assembled included a bunch of virtuosos and many went on to long, productive careers in the music business after their BS&T gig came to an end.

Kooper, the primary composer, lead singer, and keyboard player for the new group, brought in his former bandmate from The Blues Project, Steve Katz, as guitarist and second lead vocalist. He also added Bobby Colomby on drums and Jim Fielder on bass. The horn section consisted of Dick Halligan on trombone and Fred Lipsius on saxophone. Jerry Weiss and future jazz standout Randy Brecker played trumpets.

The hallmark of this album is its diversity. It featured everything from psychedelic rock, R&B, blues, folk, jazz, and even a classically inspired fugue for two keyboards and guitar on Randy Newman's "Just One Smile."

The record also included three other tracks written by some of the major songwriters of the day: Harry Nilsson's "Without Her," Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory," and "So Much Love/Underture" by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The last tune closes the album with a really cool, multi-tracked, psychedelic coda that could have been inspired by The Beatles' long fade on "All You Need Is Love." All four of these songs fit well into Kooper's vision of a jazz-rock band without losing site of the original composer's intent. Buckley's contribution still sounds like a folk song, Nilsson's is still jazzy, and Goffin and King's sounds like the pop number it really is.

Lipsius stars on the sweaty, eight minute, blues workout, "Somethin' Goin' On," and the full horn section blasts away on a track that could have only been a product of the late 60s, the hilarious "House In the Country." If anything on the record was written while under the influence of illicit, mind expanding substances this song is it. "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" is a slow burning R& B ballad that you'll still sometimes hear on classic rock radio today. Katz's guitar is front and center.

Kooper even employs a string section dubbed the BS&T String Ensemble for "Overture" and "The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes, and Freud." The latter is the weakest track on the album because the band doesn't play on it at all. It features just the ensemble and, as the title indicates, it's too pretentious for its own good. However, Kooper still gets credit for trying something completely different.

Nothing written here about Child Is Father To The Man will make you fully understand the depth and originality of the music contained on this disc without giving it a detailed listen so, if you haven't already, please consider giving it your full attention now.

The twelve tracks clock in at over forty-nine minutes, rather full for a single disc in the LP era.

Unfortunately, this first edition of Blood, Sweat, and Tears fell apart very quickly after the album was completed due to the usual reason: creative differences. Although Katz and Colomby reorganized the group without Kooper, Weiss, and Brecker, and achieved huge commercial success with their very next album featuring David Clayton-Thomas on vocals, the band would never be as dynamically creative again.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

5 Classic Artists Who Don't Deserve Our Love

A few years back Bloggerhythms posted a series on guilty pleasures. The posts make the point that we all have a few of these personal gems hidden away in or hearts, even if our heads won't allow us to admit it, while at the same time we all have a list of artists we are supposed to admire but can't. So today, as a followup to those little treatises, I give you five legendary musicians who don't deserve the love so many people heap upon them. Stars you are allowed to hate, and you know who you are Yoko Ono and Michael Bolton, are not included on this list.

James Brown
The man had tons of hits but every single one of them was exactly the same song. They all featured tuneless, staccato horns bleeping in the background, one note rhythm guitar playing, and wailing vocals. It seemed as if Brown laid down one arrangement on tape for his first record and sampled it for every other song he ever released. All he did was scream, sweat, and spastically spin his body around. I can do all of those things too. What amazing talent of his am I missing folks?

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell sometimes gave off an aura that she is more enlightened than the rest of us because she is an artist while everyone else is just a pop musician. However, the main reason to dislike Mitchell is her whiny, pitchy voice. Her singing, especially on the early folk albums, is often cringe worthy whenever she reaches for the upper registers. Except for parts of Court and Spark her pleasures elude me. I can't listen for too long despite her supposedly formidable composing skills. Also, if I hear "River" overplayed again this Christmas I'm going to scream like James Brown.

David Bowie
Men in dresses and makeup never did it for me and I'm sure I let this affect how I feel about Bowie's music. That said, even after he gave up the Ziggy Stardust persona he never stopped coming across as a too bizarre eccentric and a musical chameleon with no direction. He is more of a spectacle than a musician. His voice isn't particularly appealing either.

Talking Heads
David Byrne's singing on "Burning Down the House" is one of the worst lead vocal performances I've ever had the displeasure of hearing. Add in the totally stupid "Stay Up Late," a song that does nothing more than describe the anatomy and actions of a baby (Where's the genius in that?) and we have a band that is way overrated. What does it tell you that their most listenable song is a cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River?" It's surprising Byrne connected with so many people considering he has obvious disdain for anyone he believes is culturally inferior to him. Byrne was supposed to be a New York intellectual fronting an art-rock band. Not in my book.

Michael McDonald
I have no objections to his arrangements or compositions but McDonald is one of the WORST vocalists in pop music. There is nothing appealing about his voice. He sings like he has marbles in his mouth while in pain from a hernia. His recent attempts at covering Motown classics should be deep-sixed along with any microphone he attempts to warble into. His worst crime: ruining The Doobie Brothers. Working with McDonald is Steely Dan's only career mistake. Unfortunately, many people seem to love him.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

John David Souther Live at The XPoNential Music Festival, Camden, NJ, Sunday, July 22, 2012

John David Souther has always been a much loved songwriter who, despite the fact he doesn't have an extensive catalog of his own recorded music, has always had a lot of success penning tunes for others, most notably the California soft-rockers of the 70s. He has written for and with many of music's top flight acts including Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Glen Campbell, The Dixie Chicks, India.Arie, Roy Orbison, Michael Bublé, Warren Zevon, Brian Wilson, and many more. He also played in the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band during the same decade.

Souther's reputation as a songwriter rather than as a performer has contributed to the low profile he has always maintained with the public. The fact that he stopped recording in 1984 for twenty-four years and spent some time acting on TV shows like Thirtysomething most certainly added to his lack of recognition too, especially among younger music fans. He finally ended his studio hiatus with the release of two new albums, If the World Was You in 2008 and Natural History last year.

Currently, Souther is back on the road performing concerts like the short, forty-six minute set he played on Sunday, July 22, 2012 at the XPoNential Music Festival's smaller Marina stage.

Souther played acoustic guitar accompanied by an upright bass player and a pianist whose keyboard of choice was a baby grand. His smooth, Glenn Frey-like voice is still quite effective and he had no trouble regaling the listeners with an array of his best known songs, including his solo hit "You're Only Lonely." He also sang "Faithless Love" a song he wrote for Ronstadt, as well as tunes he composed with The Eagles: "New Kid in Town," "Heartache Tonight," and "The Sad Café." He also surprised everyone with a cover of Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me."

The current Nashville resident offered nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary but his very entertaining show was exactly what you would expect from a veteran of his stature.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

J. D. McPherson - Signs & Signifiers (2012)

Newcomer J. D. McPherson, who is only in his mid-30s, said that he doesn't like any music after 1958 and he backs that statement up with his very first album, Signs & Signifiers. The guitarist embraces old time rock 'n roll pumped up by equal amounts of rockabilly and R & B and he's also a songwriter who can take credit for partially composing ten of the twelve songs on the album.

While Brian Setzer and some others who have fashioned nice careers mining the early days of rock often come across as if they're parodying the sub-genre McPherson's work is as authentic as anything its founding fathers created all those years ago. His music is edgier than that of his idol, Buddy Holly, and his singing is just as invigorating as any of the classic shouters of the '50s.

Signs & Signifiers was originally issued in 2010 and re-released this year to a much larger audience on Rounder Records. It's available as a download, on CD, or appropriately enough, on LP. McPherson's new marriage and honeymoon with an established label is working well for him because he is beginning to acquire some national recognition.  The album's single and opening track, "North Side Gal," is receiving some nice radio airplay.

McPherson is helped along the way by acoustic bassist and producer Jimmy Sutton who is an acclaimed Chicago musician with an established reputation for getting the most out of artists who admire the music of this period. His engineer, Alex Hall, another lover of 50s rock, supplied all of the keyboard and drum work. To keep it real they recorded every track on 1/4 inch analog tape at Sutton's home studio.

The Oklahoman is also a crowd pleaser who looks the part without sporting a greasy pompadour. With Sutton onboard playing upright bass his recent live performance at Camden, New Jersey's XPoNential Music Festival, sponsored by local radio station WXPN, was totally entertaining. You can listen to his entire Camden performance here.

McPherson, a former art teacher, earned a masters degree from Tulsa University in something called open media after his undergrad work in experimental film was completed at the University of Oklahoma. Despite the two degrees in visual media his first love has always been music. Learn more about him on his official website.

You can buy the album at Amazon.