Saturday, March 18, 2017

Early Rock

Once the zeitgeist has passed, attempts to describe the elan of the day may scribe threads of veracity, but ultimately historical descriptions of an era fail to capture its essence in its entirety. And popular accounts are often viewed askance by those who were actually there, "well, that's kinda how it was - but not really."

The early years of rock and roll were simultaneously bobby sox and bubble gum - rebellion and violence. Rumors of an impending fight, someone was "called out." Rumors of pregnancy passed around at a sock hop. Custom cars, hubcap theft, switchblade knife threats. Overly possessive boyfriends. Dry-humping - some kids actually getting to it. And America's dark racial history, never known by a young postwar generation, was being challenged by their embrace of black music, preferred by many over the slick close harmonies and fuddy-duddy swing of their parents.

Early rock was angular in its Rock-a-billy aspect, gyratingly sweet in its rolling New Orleans presentations. The singers ran the gamut from cloying adonises and teen goddess types to scarily screaming witch doctors in suits and pomaded pompadours. It all coexisted, and somehow all of it was tinged with rebellion and discovery. There was a hep cat versus square thing, "are you a hood, or a cherry?" But even the laid back and disinterested knew that something big was going on, totally new and forbidden by convention - and for why? What reason? The adults were showing their previously subterranean bigotry, banning "race records" - using pejoratives to describe the R&B hits that too often "crossed" into the Top 40.

The music itself was neutral. It was just good music, mirroring the tone of the times. My family moved to the San Francisco Peninsula in 1952, and Bay Area radio became a big part of my young 9 year old world. Lucky for me, my mother was a real hep cat, and her musical ears were open to the radical developments we were hearing from AM radio playing lists of current hits. In the center of the dial at 1260 there was KYA (rumored to be owned by a sister station in Los Angeles, it made their top hits list suspect). Next door to the right was KWBR (your Warner Brothers Station...) at 1310 - later "lucky 13" KDIA. Serving up black culture for migrant workers from New Orleans - and all over the South. Promoting the blues of Lowell Fulsom, Jimmy McCracklin, Bob Geddins artists (Sugar Pie DeSanto), and Ray Dobard's Music City artists in addition to Chess, Checker, King, Federal label artists.

Farther to the right was KSAN at 1450 ("that's the spot - the best in rhythm 'n' blues is what we got") with DJs like Old "Rockin' Lucky" and the Magnificent Montague. KSAN was even deeper into the mine, working the threads of black vinyl to find even grittier treasures than the ones offered by competing KWBR, and ultimately victorious KDIA. And then to the right even further still, little KOBY (1550) with a more eclectic mix of budding rock than that offered by KYA - where you could hear "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvis, or a dreamy Susie Darlin'.

Even though there were other records preceding it - somehow most folks at the time (mid-fifties) of the rock and roll "craze" recognized Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" as the one that started it all. I'm talking zeitgeist, not total factual reality. And the "geist" changes depending on your location. The aromas and humidities of the deep South are nothing like the manicured yards of a western suburbia. And the mix of recordings, rumors and events that combine to form a pastiche in the memories of those from that geography or this - are different. Different spices locally, but the main ingredients of rock, rhythm and blues were universal.

Here's a two page list of recordings that filled the airwaves, emanated from the A&W jukebox, the counter nickel grabbers at sit-down lunch counters, 45 records and black bakelite ear pieces for listening at the open front walk-in record store. In the early days you could get Little Richard on a 78 or a 45. Older brothers and sisters held the forerunners to the rock revolution in their 78 collection - but the smaller combos and the curious egalitarian mix of young white vocal groups and guitar bands juxtaposed against the arguable superiority of their black counterparts (and antecedents) signaled rock's exit from the jazz ghetto. If the blues had a baby called rock and roll, who was the father?

These lists were spontaneously generated in a fit of reminiscence - actually a rare moment of lucidity. Starting with Rock Around The Clock I simply remembered moments in time, and what music was playing. The lists were done around the late 80s, about 40 years after the fact. It's now 60 years or more gone by and looking at the lists I saw a few titles I would not have remembered, and reading between the lines, a few I forgot.

Sh-boom was at the crux of the white-black dichotomy. I don't know who sold more but the more soulful version belonged to The Chords, not the Crewcuts - and the Chords version had a great tenor sax solo. (Street Corner Renaissance - Life Could Be A Dream - a 21st century refinement of the art.)

Elvis and Ready Teddy - ready to party, ready to fight, rock all night. The Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes controversy, the echo chamber on Heartbreak Hotel controversy, the hip-shaking out of camera range on Ed Sullivan controversy, the Presley pout. Most of the girls loved Elvis, which made it tough for the guys, and any guy who liked Elvis was suspect. Brown bucks versus white, pink and black a fad color scheme, super thin belts. Levis, cuff rolled under, Pendleton shirt untucked on the south side of town, cuffs rolled up with pale blue showing, Pendleton tucked in, mostly unbuttoned, collar and cuffs carefully turned halfway back guaranteed safety on the north side of town.

Certain songs were in heavy airplay - Searchin' by the Coasters b/w (backed with) Young Blood. Honky Tonk and Tequila - sax instrumentals. Jimmy Rodgers - Woman From Liberia - they played Honeycomb too much! And the flip side of You Cheated by the Shields - That's The Way It's Gonna Be - could've been a Fats Domino song and it got more play on the lunchtime jukebox. And, again the white replicants, the Slades, had a version. They sang well, and gave the pigmentally challenged a ray of hope, but still, the soul version ruled.

And when Please, Please, Please hit - it hit big in the Bay Area - every R&B copy band was required to field a version, and you'd be judged on that. Along with the requisite Little Richard, Fats Domino, Larry Williams and other James Brown numbers: Good Good Lovin', I'll Go Crazy, Think, Baby You're Right, And I Do Just What I Want. Bobby Bland entered into the fray, horn bands loved to do Turn On Your Love Light, and the more adept would add St. James Infirmary, Jelly Jelly Jelly, and in later years That's The Way Love Is. And of course Ray Charles was discovered to be a deep source of archival material after the Wurlitzer piano used in What'd I Say came out of every kitchen radio in America with a delightful resonance the Summer of 1959. And the Kings of the blues: B.B., Albert, Freddie - and Come On PI & II by Earl King ("King Earl" before Imperial Records messed up his name).

And a glaring omission from my hand-written lists - Hank Ballard & The Midnighters. There was a period of a couple of years where we waited for the latest release from Elvis, yes, but more so Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Chuck Berry and Hank Ballard were both prolific, but Hank Ballard had cool sax work and double entendre! Early on it was Work With Me Annie, Sexy Ways, Annie Had A Baby. Later he got into the dance grooves: The Coffee Grind, The Hoochie Coochie Coo, Finger Poppin' Time, The Continental - but it was The Twist that became a harbinger of the fad to come. The group of kids I hung out with had cars by 1959, and whenever Ballard's recording came on we would pull to the side of the road, open the doors so the sound could come out and we'd twist by the roadside. Then a year later Chubby Checker stole the Twist - I think that's a suitable place to draw the curtain on early rock and roll!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dig a Little Deeper -- "War"

Your author has had two careers in music. From 1957 to 1972 I played rock, soul, r&b and modal jazz. Then from 1996 to 2011; blues, a "horn band" and some jazz gigs. When immersed in music as a career one often discovers wonderful recordings that offer a fresh perspective on a given artist's body of work. Not as well known as their hits, these second and third tier offerings are nevertheless wonderful, sometimes more engaging and suitable for repeat listening than their better known tunes. As a musician one enjoys playing new material, else the evening becomes a series of treks down familiar paths. Confidently playing your own taste mixed with titles familiar to the audience enlivens your presentation.

When I'm in the audience I hope to hear things I've never heard before. When vinyl 33s were the media of choice, we'd go to the record store and wait for a sound booth. With 2 or 3 LPs ready for audition, we looked for the thrill of discovering great unknown tracks. And at $2.98 for mono and $3.98 for stereo (circa 1960), one wanted to make sure there were all good cuts on an album. Sometimes you'd buy one, your friend buys the other one, and you go to each other's house to hear the sides. A few years later, when an album was $6.98 I had a bandleader who would fine us $7 for being late to rehearsal -- he had a pretty good record collection! That was 1969, a good year for funk, soul and R&B.

The last band I played in before my 1972 retirement was a funky 4-piece called Tyme. Lead singer Jean Glade had a great high voice, so Just My Imagination and Oh Girl by the Chilites were good for him. The rest of us sang, too. Strangely enough I did Sly's Family Affair, and a slow blues called Stranded, but I really dug singing background, especially on tunes by War. We did Get Down -- everybody got a verse -- and Gene shined on Slipping Into Darkness. Of course we did The World Is A Ghetto and I think we even did Four Cornered Room, but it was too slow and fell out of the repertoire. Later I was fortunate to sing lead on All Day Music with Edell and the Thunderbirds on a brief road trip in the Summer of 1974 -- another band with 4 singers, "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah..." Later War became famous for Low Rider, Me And Baby Brother, the Cisco Kid -- but here's some of their back shelf -- and definitely funky stuff:

Life Is So Strange
City Country City edited to 3:30
Don't Let No One Get You Down
Why Can't We Be Friends
Ballero (flute)
Nappy Head
Fidel's Fantasy (flute in the middle)
live ==>  Southern Part of Texas

Now there's a whole other perspective on War when one digs into their history, and the early association with Eric Burdon. I've never had the opportunity to dig into that back story, but I've been searching for some music I heard over the FM around 1970, the DJ introduced it as Eric Burdon and War, and there was a fantastic instrumental passage in the middle where they really went outside, somewhere between Fillmore psychedelic and John Cage abstraction. It was a long break, and it offered a shift in perspective just as mind-blowing as my first stoned listen to the orchestral freak-out at the end of the Beatles Day In The Life. Been looking for the lost Eric Burdon & War cut for over 40 years -- maybe I can find it on YouTube! And again, no apology for seeming to do little more than offer a list of YouTube links -- just being your guide -- does take some time to cull out the bad takes, the low level recordings. Please enjoy the play list...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band

I've been reading "Hole in our Soul, The Loss of Beauty & Meaning in American Popular Music" by Martha Bayles, 390 pages of scholarly research and contemporary insight that's still relevant even though it was published in 1994. Shocked but pleased to find my love for 1960s funk vindicated as the author shares the point of view that something was lost circa 1968 forward as the music industry became more voracious and sophisticated, promoting "perverse modernism," shocking the public, pandering to the prurient. On the positive side, she celebrates 60s soul music as a culmination of the finest aspects our culture as expressed through the continuation of Afro-American traditions of community, ritual celebration and musical evolution.

While her book has many excellent analyses of various artists, their styles and relationship to surrounding society, the focus is on macro forces and philosophies, leaving closer examination of stylistic nuance to other authors. In keeping with the Funk Now charter, this week I'm going to hip you to some of the funkiest cuts ever produced, the works of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band. A few weeks ago I tried to qualify for Google AdSense hoping I could make some bread off of blogging, but they turned me down as not prolific and simply posting pointers to YouTube videos. Nevertheless, my role here is virtual guide to the golden age of funk, and my value added is to save the reader time by preselecting the best songs and the best representative recordings, adding (hopefully) insightful comments.

I'm surprised that my initial searching for information on the Watts 103rd Street Band has offered little more than what Wikipedia and the LastFM site usually offer about any artist. Notably two fine guitarists appeared in Mr. Wright's bands, Al McKay (later with Earth, Wind and Fire) and Mel Brown who I met and gigged with briefly in Honolulu in the mid 60s. Obviously Benorce Blackmon is also an excellent guitarist, having played on everything after Al McKay left in 1969, and Charles is a lefty guitarist himself. If I had but one CD by this band it would be Express Yourself: The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, an excellent collection featuring most of the YouTube links I have gathered from my memories and recent explorations.

My Amherst Studio Update blog will take a look at some of the architectural elements of a good funk recording next week, and I'll reference some of these songs for study. For now, just take a listen and enjoy!

Do Your Thing   first notable release
Express Yourself parts 2&1
Your Love (Means Everything To Me)
Loveland  a great doo-wop/funk fusion
What Can You Bring Me  bass on upbeat eighths!
Ninety Day Cycle People (funk sci-fi!)
I Got Love
Till You Get Enough
Gimme That Sammich
Nonsense (long - a lesson in spontaneity)

Martha Bayles has a new book, Through A Screen Darkly. Find out more at While America's image has been tarnished by cultural exports, she hopes to chart a positive path for the future. I hope to join that future and will offer some ideas when I finish my overdue essay on The Shape of Funk To Come.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Segue to Little Junior Parker

Two of my favorite artists recorded on the famous Duke Records label out of Houston, Texas. That would be Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Junior Parker! Last week I focused the way-back machine on Mose Allison, and when I got to "That's All Right" I was reminded of Jr. Parker's version. Then my YouTube journey took me to Mr. Parker's lovely song, Someone Somewhere. For 50 years (!) I listened to that number in my head, couldn't find it in the old vinyl shops like Big Al's Record Barn or the Record Man in Redwood City, CA. A couple of years ago I checked YouTube again but the song was removed for copyright violations.

Apparently some of this rare old music is bird-dogged by their copyright holders, but most are too laid back to bother, or find value in keeping their titles publicized. I listen to songs on YouTube because it's too much work to search through my vinyl collection for 45s or search for album tracks. I'm slowly converting my vinyl collection to MP3s, but at the moment I'm stalled because I need a new high-quality stylus. When I found the previously unavailable Someone Somewhere as an MP3 download on, they got my 99 cents without hesitation. So, dear reader, dear listener, audition these sides, but when you hear something you really dig, don't "steal their bits." Jump on to a retail site and buy stuff for your "gold" collection and your own personal listening device.

Here's a list of my other favorites from Herman Parker Junior:
How Long Can This Go On  (flip side of Annie Get Your YoYo)
In The Dark
Driving Wheel (loud but no annoying echo like the re-release)
Look On Yonders Wall (good bari sax on this one)
I Need Your Love So Bad 
Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong
Five Long Years (very slow - great voice)
Mother In Law Blues
Sweet Home Chicago
Next Time You See Me

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mose Allison -- He's Funky

Mose Allison is funky, He really is. His comping and audible grunting, sense of laconic irony in both his voice and his piano phrasing, Mose is funky. I got to catch him live on two occasions. He was an uncredited genius with an insensitive audience both times I saw him. He's serious about his music and he became frustrated with the half-filled house of inattentive and self-absorbed patrons and his response was to play his piano solos in seconds. Jarring -- and he had a right to his attitude -- but I preferred the Mose I heard on his recordings.

And what great records he made! Back in the day when 45s were the media of choice, some of us had record players in our cars -- like my friend Bill -- 54 Buick, two door hardtop with a rake, and a great collection of jazz and blues 45s. The records stacked upside down and dropped down after they played. There was a cookie can from Woolworth's that just fit the 45s. I was DJ, suggesting the song list, or taking direction and prepping the record stacks:
Parchman Farm, Eyesight To The Blind, Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Seventh SonLost Mind "I lost my mind in a wild romance," Your Molecular Structure, That's All Right, Your Mind Is On Vacation "You're over-laughin' when things ain't funny..." Foolkiller's comin'!

Some said a white man playing piano couldn't be playing blues. Well Mose is from Mississippi, where you from? Again, he's got a right. Music transcends race and ultimately music transcends description. Yes, we can describe Mose as a jazz pianist, a "casual" vocal stylist, but don't forget expressive, hip, capable, subtle, deep -- and funky!
"It is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important."  -- James Baldwin

Saturday, March 1, 2014

San Francisco -- South Bay Update

Sat in on the blues jam at Little Lou's on Winchester in Campbell Thursday the 27th of February, with bari sax man Ray DiFazio. It was an excellent night with 4 saxes up there for a few numbers. Host Aki Kumar graciously manages a steady procession of Bay Area blues luminaries, producing a stellar show. We had to wait to hear Aki, but it was well worth it -- he sings and plays blues harp just as good as he wants! Later stopped by the Quarter Note in Sunnyvale to help celebrate Diva Stativa's birthday. A wild funk-disco jam with 5 horns at one point, including old friends Tony Bolivar and Mike Luzzi, new friend Fred on trumpet. I'll be reviewing some of these local haps on the Funk Now blog in the future...
Sneaky Pete led off the jam in Campbell. Ray and I arrived a little bit later -- but I'll be jamming with Pete in a couple of weeks at JJ's San Jose. No cover on Thursday -- New York Pizza is next door and JJ's is "pizza friendly!"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What About The Blues?

"The blues is quicksilver
  It is not a quotation
  If it becomes a quotation
  It becomes irrelevant"
-- James Baldwin  

Can the blues be funky? Just to ask the question could be an insult to Mother Blues. The black experience has given birth to so many uniquely American art forms -- field hollers, gospel music, black realism in painting, art, literature and film -- and the blues! "I love the blues, she heard my cry..." The blues is like the Mississippi, a great tributary nourishing jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll -- and funk too sprang from her delta. In the broader sense of a 21st Century funk that subsumes the earlier criteria of both soul and funk, a true blues performance will be funky soulful, funky down-to-earth, alternately joyous and heart-wrenchingly sad. And since the blues itself gave rise to the original funk music, how could the blues be anything but funky? The answer is: only when the blues is not the blues!

There is much that is ersatz in our modern life. The pressure to constantly produce products that are new, the push to get us opening our wallets, these forces create much that sizzles but fails to nourish. Somewhere around 1968 a modification to the Marshall amplifier increased the volume of the rock band to a thunderous din that still continues. There are many practitioners of amplified blues that mistake loudness for excitement, divorced from the history and tradition of this great Americana. Trust me, I'm not going to launch into a criticism of middle-aged, middle-class, white guitar slingers. In spite of mass media fanning the flames of ignorance, the great majority of contemporary society is beyond ageism, thinks in terms of culture instead of race, and there is no more middle class, we all have a right to sing the blues.

Instead this is a cautionary note. Don't assume because you are paying obeisance to the form that your art automatically acquires validity. Balance and interplay between the musicians, an ability to evoke emotion from a single note, a feeling that transcends intonation and above all an inner quest for truth that will not allow a single meaningless note, these qualities will put the funk in your blues. An electronic tuner should be as foreign to the bandstand as a music stand. Don't use a pedal on your guitar rig when you can put a microphone on your beat-up overdriven amp and a good sound man will balance your performance for the listeners in the larger venues. Please don't sing a song that you haven't lived.

Don't sing "She caught the Katie and left me a mule to ride" unless your baby flew off in a jet plane and left you with a beat up Honda Civic, and you at least provide your audience a brief explanation to frame up your anachronism. By analogy, this line of thinking goes on and on. I don't think you can "pitch a wang dang doodle" if you never visited a get-down club where you had to be polite and watch your back while reveling just the same. It's OK if you never knew anyone named Abysinnian Ned, but at least know what the lyrics are talking about. Don't invoke the bravado of Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" or Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" unless you've got a rap sheet, or you're portraying the persona of a good friend who does.

And finally, be very careful about trying a note for note copy -- even the original artist wouldn't copy their own recording. Your love and respect for a given artist should include an understanding that we are all continually changing and the honesty of the present trumps a slavish replication of some golden moment from the past. Study your predecessors and become accomplished, but find your own voice. Develop your own style, try an open tuning on some songs, use appropriate alternate chords, don't play the same turn-around on every song. If the original was a rhumba, try a reggae beat. Will that medium tempo work as a ballad? Can you rework that country blues into a big city sound with your horn section? How about letting the horns or the rest of the band hit the bar while you do a couple of unexpected a capella numbers?

Bluesman, be true to your own soul. Then and only then will your blues be funky.

"Junior may be younger and stronger, but Grandpa knows how to go 'round a whole lot longer."
 -- Magnificent Montague

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.“ -- from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin