Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Noel Coward, Why Do the Wrong People Travel?
Rick Nelson, Travelin' Man.

Or what happened when the Côte d'Azur set wound up on the same flight as the Omaha car salesman convention.

This version of Noel Coward's "Why Do the Wrong People Travel" is a demo recording of a song Coward wrote for his 1961 show Sail Away--it's echt anti-American (and anti-middle-class) snobbery delivered with such gusto that even the worst flyover country rube would have to admit defeat. On Rarities.

Rick Nelson seems slightly miscast as a globe-circling Lothario, but James Burton's guitar and the luxury-line studio production make the sale for him. Nelson's bass player, Joe Osborn, was walking through Imperial Records' office when he heard a demo of "Travelin' Man" being played by Sam Cooke's manager. A while later, Osborn walked in, asked to hear "that traveling song" again, and Cooke's manager obliged him by digging the demo tape out of a garbage can and handing it to him. Nelson's version would be a #1 hit, the biggest of his career.

Recorded 13 March 1961 and released as Imperial 5741. Its b-side was "Hello Mary Lou", a better track, but one that didn't fit this cheap theme!; on Greatest Hits.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, The Beautiful American.

I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone on the way.

Duke Ellington.

They had run into each other over the years, but had recorded together only once, on a forgotten track called "Long, Long Journey" in 1946. Finally, some fifteen years later, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong made an album. They spent two days in a New York studio: Ellington sat in with Armstrong's touring band, while Armstrong sang Ellington compositions.

As noted on this fine track-by-track Armstrong blog, the session was the inspiration of Roulette Records owner Bob Thiele. Ellington's label Columbia, during the '50s, had toyed with the idea of getting Armstrong and Ellington's orchestra together to make a LP, which sadly didn't come to pass. But the Roulette LP, while it doesn't capture the players at their peak, is still a valedictory of sorts for jazz's founding fathers.

So here's Armstrong at 60, still the sunny embodiment of jazz's capacity for joy, and Ellington at 62, still jazz's finest collaborator, both restless for new sounds (he would soon record with Mingus and Coltrane) and revering the history he had helped make. Armstrong's take on "It Don't Mean a Thing" makes the piece seem as though it had been written specifically for him; he turns the verse into a happy conversation with himself, offers the chorus as a national anthem.

And Armstrong's skills as trumpeter--listen to him rocket off as the out chorus approaches--are highlighted on a newer Ellington composition, "The Beautiful American," whose title could have been Armstrong's epitaph.

Recorded 3 April 1961 with Trummy Young on trombone (a Swing Era veteran, best known for his work with Jimmy Lunceford), Barney Bigard, Ellington's longtime clarinet player, Mort Herbert (b) and Danny Barcelona (d). Originally released on two Roulette LPs--Together for the First Time (1961) and The Great Reunion (1963); collected on The Great Summit.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


The Simms Twins, Soothe Me.
Bo Diddley, Pills.

Bo Diddley and Sam Cooke moonlighted as record producers: Diddley cut his own records at home, while Cooke ran his own independent label, SAR, with such assured taste that SAR could have become a rival to Stax/Volt had Cooke not died in 1964.

SAR, founded in 1959 with Cooke's friend J.W. Alexander, recorded gospel (Cooke's old group, the Soul Stirrers) and early soul, recording several up-and-coming musicians, including Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor, Cooke's replacement in the Soul Stirrers. SAR was as bare-bones as you could get--a small Hollywood office with a few desks, a piano, and one employee (the songwriter Zelda Samuels).

The Simms Twins came out of a family gospel group, the Simms Brothers Sextet, who had released a few flopped singles in the early '50s. After the group fell apart, Bobby and Ken, the youngest of the six, found work as backup singers in various LA studios. Cooke used them on his hit "Cupid" and asked them back for a new song he was recording. Yet after Cooke listened to the brothers sing his "Soothe Me" (as backup for an unrecorded Cooke vocal), Cooke liked it so much he released the track as it was on SAR, as a Simms Twins solo single.

Released as SAR 117 c/w "I'll Never Come Running Back to You"--it was the label's biggest seller; on The SAR Records Story.

Bo Diddley, when he moved from Chicago to Washington, DC in the late '50s, built a home recording studio, where he cut most of LPs like Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger and many of his singles in the early '60s. One of the more offbeat records from this period was Diddley's "Pills," which doesn't feature the standard Diddley beat but was scuzzy enough to inspire a generation of punks.

Recorded in May '61 and released as Checker 985 c/w "Call Me"; on The Chess Box.

And both tracks are far better known in their cover versions: Sam and Dave's "Soothe Me,"from 1967 (Best Of) and the New York Dolls' "Pills," from their 1973 self-titled record.

Top: the rock & roll secretary, friend of the rock & roll nurse.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Nappy Brown, Coal Miner.
Coleman Wilson, Passing Zone Blues.
Elmore James, Shake Your Moneymaker.

The man who builds a factory builds a temple, the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.

Calvin Coolidge.

Orare est laborare, laborare est orare. (To worship is to work, to work is to worship.)

St. Benedict.

I guess I'll die with a shovel in my hand.

Nappy Brown.

Three perspectives on labor:

Napoleon "Nappy" Brown
, mining technician. Work ethic is basically good, productivity noted by supervisors, but some attitudinal issues remain. Case recommended for further supervision.

"Coal Miner" was one of Brown's last singles for Savoy, the jazz label he had helped give a second life as an R&B purveyor. (Brown's 1955 "Don't Be Angry"--which Savoy's owner thought was partially sung in Yiddish-- was his biggest chart hit.) "Coal Miner" is an odd record, with Brown accompanied by an at-times harsh saxophone and flute (the mix is very trebly and sharp, to the point of distortion sometimes); the sound is quite unlike most of Brown's other Savoy tracks. I wonder if "Miner" was meant to be a spin on Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," from the previous year. While not doing much in the U.S., it eventually became a prized Northern Soul record in the U.K.

"Coal Miner" was released as Savoy 1594 c/w "Honnie-Bonnie"; on Night Time Is the Right Time and iTunes. Brown is still playing today, at age 79. He just made the fine record Long Time Coming for Blind Pig.

Coleman Wilson, truck driver. Good sense of initiative, but risk management not a top priority. While attempts to keep to delivery schedule commendable, tendency for driver to accrue penalties and his various legal issues make his position at the company untenable. Recommended: immediate termination.

"Passing Zone Blues" is the lament of a trucker trying to make up time on his route (though he's still looking for those lady hitchhikers), and getting pulled over by the cops. Trucker hopes for blue-collar solidarity, gets hauled off the joint.

Released as King 5512 c/w "Flat Footed Mama"; on 20 Truck Drivin' Hits. This recording comes from the scratchiest LP in the world, the still-wonderful Truck Driver Songs. I don't know a thing about Wilson, except he's obscure enough that he probably really was a truck driver, recorded by King for whatever reason.

Finally, Elmore James lauds one particularly skilled wage-earner. Advancement quite probable.

Recorded in New Orleans in the summer of '61, with either King Mose or Sam Myers on drums, Sammy Lee Bully (b), and Johnny "Big Moose" Walker on piano; released as the b-side of "Look On Yonder Wall", Fire 504; on The Sky Is Crying. Does it get better than Elmore James?

Friday, April 11, 2008


Richard Wilbur, Shame.
Depiano and Beguen Band, Gouvernment Ya Congo.

Revolution, imagined: Richard Wilbur's "Shame" was first published in Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems.

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

In Collected Poems.

Revolution, chimerical: Depiano's "Gouvernment Ya Congo" was recorded during a chaotic year when the newly-independent Republic of the Congo fell into vicious, endless civil war, with both Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjöld dead by the end of '61.

From Benn Loxo du Taccu, which first featured the track back in '05: The DRC is a vibrant place filled with intelligent people that’s going absolutely nowhere due to continued strife and bad government.

So then why are the guys singing this song so happy? Yes, their country just gained independence (the song is from 1961), but listen to the politicians they sing about: Kasavubu, Congo’s first president who is soon to be deposed by Mobutu; Adula, the short-lived prime minister who took over the job after the American-ordered assassination of their first prime minister; Mobutu, the army-leader who will soon either fire or kill everyone in political office and lead his country for 30 long, dictatorial years. Time for a rhumba!"

On Ngoma: Souvenir ya l'independence.

Top: Moise Tshombe.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The One-Car Accident

Mary Wells, Bye Bye Baby.
The Supremes, Buttered Popcorn.

The sound of raw, young America: the debut single of Mary Wells, the first major artist that Berry Gordy's Motown produced, and the second single by The Supremes, who would become Motown's biggest act in the mid-'60s.

Wells' "Bye Bye Baby" is an ocean's remove from the poised, demure sensibilities of "My Guy," her biggest Motown hit--it's early gut-bucket soul, centered on the 17-year-old Wells' wild, harrowed vocal. Wells had decided to write a song for Jackie Wilson and offered it to Gordy--she sang the track (in her imitation of Wilson's style) over two dozen times in the studio until Gordy thought she had got it. The fatigue and desperation carries over into the performance. Along with Barrett Strong's "Money," this is the great early Motown hit--a phenomenal record.

Released in January 1961 as Motown 1003 c/w "Please Forgive Me"; on Ultimate Collection.

"Buttered Popcorn," sung by Florence Ballard, not Diana Ross (see Dreamgirls for the whole story), is far nastier and goofier than anything The Supremes did in their later chart-topping days. (Mary Wilson later said Ballard had to stand 17 feet away from the microphone in the studio, as her voice was so powerful). Flo's guy has a one-track mind--at dinner, she desperately tries to distract him, asking him about what's happening in the news, and he just slavers "more butter! more butter! more butter!"

Written by Gordy and Motown sales executive Barney Ales, "Popcorn" became a hit in Detroit but proved too much for the nation as a whole. While lacks the pop hooks and streamlined feel of the later Supremes records, it's a joy in its own right.

Released in July 1961 as Tamla 54045 c/w "Who's Loving You"; on Anthology or on iTunes.

Monday, April 07, 2008


The Party Boys, We Got a Party.
Charlie Feathers, Wild Wild Party.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Save the Last Dance For Me.

Parties don't exist in the present tense: they live in the jittery conditional mood, or as a void in the future tense (expected, planned, anticipated--or dreaded) or they are walled up in the preterite or the pluperfect tense (remembered hazily, recounted as legends to others). During the party itself, all is barely grasped as it occurs, in the way that, when watching a movie, the eye only retains the last dozen frames that have flickered before it.

This is by no means a universal rule: family parties, for example, exist in the excruciating, endless present.

"We Got a Party" opens with a sense of bleary excitement, the belief that the future (just about to occur) holds untold promise, in women or at least in booze. Only the booze comes through. It ends near dawn, with the singers staggering around the shattered living room, about to get sick on the carpet.

I don't know a thing about the Party Boys, other than they recorded for Ron Records (this was their only single), that Huey "Piano" Smith is probably on the track and that their "We Got a Party" was a New Orleans cult classic for decades, deservedly so. On Best of Ron Records Vol. 1.

"Wild Wild Party" is a tall tale that the singer offers a friend the day after the party--he can barely keep everything that happened in one place in his mind ("they were runnin' and a hollin' and a shootin' and a fussin' and a snatchin' and a scratchin'/and alla this happened at the SAME...TIME"). He had woken up that morning with a vicious hangover and a bullet hole in his jacket.

It was the b-side of one of the singles Charlie Feathers made for a few local Memphis labels in the early '60s, a period when Feathers was considering giving up on rock & roll in favor of playing softball (he was said to be a top-notch pitcher). Recorded at Stan Kesler's studio in Memphis and released in December 1961 as Memphis 103 c/w "Today and Tomorrow"; on Rock-A-Billy.

Meanwhile, back at the party, the Killer stands against the wall, nursing a drink, watching his date dance with other guys. This won't end well.

Lewis' version of "Save the Last Dance For Me" was released in September '61 as Sun 367 c/w "As Long As I Live"; on 25 All-Time Greatest Sun Recordings, which every household should have.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Theme Song

The Black Crowes, Locust Street.

There is a Locust Street in every city and town in America east of the Mississippi. It’s a song about the other part of America that is never shown in the media. It’s a broken place, a fragment of some weird industrial revolution and the empty lots in cities like New York and upstate New York. It’s invisible, and you’d think in an election year, they would be talking about it all the time.

Chris Robinson.

Some time back, Chris Robinson called me up. How he got my number I don't know. I figured it was a crank at first. It was three in the morning, and the distortion on the line was such I thought I had been chosen at random to get a call from the Space Shuttle.

"Hey, coffee!" the voice said.




"Coffee guy! On the website, man!" Ah. I steeled myself. Yet another person who loved the "Coffee" post that, for whatever reason, is the most popular thing ever put up on this misbegotten site.

"Yeah, coffee's really great, isn't it? Um, are you calling from Europe or something, 'cos it's a bit late here--"

"Naw, I'm on the road! My brother just turned me on to your site!"

"While you were driving?"

"Naw, I'm on the bus, mofo! Come on, man, it's Chris--from the Black Crowes!"

Now like many of you, I had thought the Black Crowes had broken up around the time of the Clinton impeachment, but they're evidently still going strong. I think my silence offended him. I rummaged around in my sleepy thoughts for something.

"Well, I did like that one you did--not that Otis Redding cover, sorry. The other one, was that a cover? 'Melody!' Was that a Stones cover?"

"'Remedy.' No, we wrote that one, man--in like '92," he said, with ice in his tinny voice.

"It went something like 'all I want is a mello-dee-hee-hee'? You held the note kinda long for no reason and then sort of hissed it, right?"

"Look man, I'm just calling because I wanted to get that Emmett Miller 'Cream in My Coffee' track that's not up there anymore."

"Hey, you know, I remember one time I saw you and Kate Hudson waiting for a table at some restaurant in Tribeca. I felt sad at first, because celebrity ought to get you a table for brunch, if nothing else. And then I thought, no, you were kind of sad, because it wasn't that great a place."

"Just keepin' on track about that Emmett Miller: come on, man. I can give you my brother's email."

"And then I figured you probably were to blame, because while your wife looked really pretty, you looked like you'd been in the hold of a whaling ship for six months."

"You're out of line, fucker!"

"Yeah? Well I'm not giving you any Emmett Miller! Are you gonna cover him now? Because I'm not gonna be responsible for you butchering 'God's River' or even the weakest, most racist piece of crap song that Miller did."

"Ah wouldn't take et from you anyway!" (He suddenly seem to have a Virginia piedmont accent and I was transported, for a moment, to my childhood.) "And just so you know, I can get brunch any time I want, man--any city, any time. And with any lady."

"Well, you couldn't get it back then, and it's because you looked like you smelled like armpit and ass."

A trebly scream of rage, then a string of curses.

Well, that was then. We've since made up and, hey, we still talk sometimes. He calls me from on the road, usually when he's high, and I'm around most days. Once he started talking about Franklin Roosevelt, who he's a big fan of. Chris wondered if FDR had died in 1941, and Henry Wallace had become president, whether the U.S. would've become Stalinist, or if Wallace just would've been assassinated by America Firsters. I said that was a good question, and there likely was a comic book about it. Another time he called from Manila and recounted a dream which meant a great deal to him, but he couldn't convey it very well--lots of very boring details, stuff about a rocking horse and his mother.

We made an agreement--I'd burn him a copy of the Emmett Miller CD, and he'd write a theme song for my site. Well, I sent him the CD three years ago, and the lazy sod finally delivered on his side of the deal.

But I'm not putting the Crowes' "Locust Street" up here, though, because he threatened to kill me if I did. You can listen to it on their site, though or get it for Pepsi points here.