is anybody going to san antone?

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I kicked in some cash yesterday for a crowd-funded documentary about Doug Sahm directed by Texas music maven Joe Nick Patoski, and the same day’s mail brought me a copy of a new CD on the hypercool label The Numero Group, Royal Jesters: English Oldies, so musically-geographically I’ve spent the last 24 hours in and around San Antonio. One thing about acquiring and absorbing music on a pretty constant basis is that I’m always amazed by how much I don’t know, all the music that somehow has managed to slip past me, things that I have to guess I would never discover through all the sophisticated algorithms of streaming services like Apple and Spotify. What use are they to me? Are they going to connect the dots between Sahm and the guy who sang lead for the Royal Jesters, named Dimas Garza, who also for a while had a doo-wop group called Dino & The Dell-Tones? Will they point me in the direction of Garza’s other efforts in The Lyrics, or introduce me to Rudy & The Reno Bops or Charlie & The Jives, groups I never heard of until yesterday and whose music I would be stunned to find on any streaming service? There is more access to more music in more places than there ever has been, and yet somehow there are all these holes in my knowledge, and believe me, I’ve been paying intense attention for a very long time. How did I never stumble on the Royal Jesters before, or know they did versions of The Five Keys’ “Wisdom of A Fool” (which isn’t even on the new compilation), Evie Sands’ (by way of Trade Martin) “Take Me For A Little While,” and The Royalettes’ (via Teddy Randazzo) “I Want To Meet Her”? English Oldies is filled with surprises: it’s got a Tex-Mex sexy grind, elements of soul and doo wop. Their “What’cha Gonna Do About It” isn’t anything like the Doris Troy original, or The Small Faces’ cover; it’s like, what?, Pachuco-Garage-R&B? Is that a thing?

The very informative Royal Jesters booklet has a photo of an ad for a “Big Easter Show & Dance,” from what year I don’t know (’63?), but it sure looks like it was fun. The RJ’s are down at the bottom of the bill. Up on top are Joe Barry and someone I hadn’t heard of named Big Sambo, so of course I had to find out more, so with a few clicks I learned that, A) Mr. Sambo’s group was The House Wreckers, B) He worked with the legendary Huey F. Meaux, and C) the B-side of his Eric single “At The Party” was Meaux’s “The Rains Came,” which I know from The Sir Douglas Quintet. I can’t explain why finding stuff like that out is such a kick for me, but there you have it. On the row right under the pics of Clay and Big Sambo is one of Kenner Records recording artist Doug Sahm (billed with his group The Starmarks and identified by what I guess was his San Antonio hit “Two Hearts In Love”). Also on the show, the aforementioned Charlie & the Jives and Rudy & The Reno Boys. Another internet search, and that’s how you can easily blow a day.

One place I checked out calls Garza “one of the unsung heroes of sixties Chicano Soul,” which is a really specific thing to be, and from what I can discern, it appears to be true. He was all over the place as a singer and writer, jumping from label to label and group to group (there are tracks on the English Oldies album by something named Dimas III), but never had any crossover success, so it’s up to enterprising folks like the good people over at The Numero Group to give his career some context, provide a starting point. And to people like Joe Nick to try and kickstart (literally) interest and recognition of Doug Sahm who, unlike Garza, did have broad, or at least broader, impact. I wrote recently about the insane amount of memorable music from 1965, that explosive cultural moment when hit records were flying at the listener from all directions, when “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Wooly Bully” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” all made perfect pop sense. In the spring of that year, “She’s About A Mover” by The Sir Douglas Quintet was released, fake-British name attached (no one was fooled for a second), and I’d say it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, but one thing about ’65 was that almost nothing sounded like anything else. I suppose it was kind of like Sam The Sham & The Pharaoh’s smash, and they both made their debut on the Billboard singles chart the same week, but I don’t remember anyone talking about The Great Farfisa Invasion of April ’65.

Part of the Sahm Kickstarter campaign involves a petition to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in that regard I wish them well but I’m not holding my breath. That organization’s blind spots are not so much “spots” as massive blackouts. How can you explain to people who might barely remember “She’s About A Mover” and possibly “Mendocino” (some Rock Fan friends of mine tuned that out as soon as they heard Sahm’s opening sung line, “Teeny-bopper, my teenage lover,” not because they thought anything inappropriate was going on, but because “teeny-bopper” = “bubble-gum”) that Sahm’s freewheeling eclectic approach to roots music of all stripes was soulful and significant, that his records — from his earliest singles to his albums with the “supergroup” Texas Tornados — were wildly fun? You can start anywhere, with the Quintet’s Tribe records, or ’71’s The Return of Doug Saldana, or the Atlantic albums, and be won over. One of my favorites is his 1989 solo album Juke Box Music, an affectionate exploration of the music that shaped him. He could have played some of these songs (“I’m A Fool To Care,” “Talk To Me,” “Buzz Buzz Buzz”) at that San Antonio show where he shared the bill with the Royal Jesters. Whatever happens Hall of Fame-wise, thanks for all the beautiful vibrations.

nina simone’s encyclopedia of songs

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Nina SIMONE;   (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

There’s a remarkable, gut-wrenching video of Nina Simone from 1976 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It runs for nearly 10-1/2 minutes, the camera right in her face for most of the time. Some moments, it’s like you’re watching someone unravel in front of an audience, and it’s almost too much to sit through, and others are flashes of what Simone was always capable of, mingling blues, soul jazz, gospel and pop into one searing voice, although “mingling” is maybe the wrong word. It’s like she doesn’t even see those as separate elements to combine (“I call it black classical music,” she said); there’s no division for her. One YouTube clip of this performance has been viewed nearly 2,500,000 times the last I looked, and while that isn’t much on the One Direction meter, it’s a lot for an artist like Nina Simone, who’s been gone for a dozen years and was never wildly popular in her prime, the 1960s and early ’70s, when she recorded more than twenty albums for Colpix, Philips and RCA. With a Netflix documentary premiering this week, and related press (a big New York Times story this weekend), and an album of contemporary artists paying tribute (Lauryn Hill’s “Feeling Good” has already been sent out into the world), Nina Simone views and streams are bound to spike, and more people are going to discover that Montreux performance. The song is the easy-listening Morris Albert smash “Feelings,” so anyone searching for “Feeling Good” might well stumble on it, click, and get sucked in.

“Feelings”? Well, that’s where the whole Nina Simone thing gets very complicated. Because what people know about her, through the cultural filter, is that she was a strong, defiant musician, a voice of the Civil Rights Movement, the “High Priestess of Soul” whose repertoire was laced with fire: “Backlash Blues,” “Mississippi Goddamn” (Is it too late to get a South Carolina version on the new tribute album? Probably.), “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Or maybe they know “Feeling Good,” “I Put A Spell On You” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (the latter two adopted by The Animals, among others), or her bouncy version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her debut. The closest equivalent I can think of in terms of sheer genre-range is Ray Charles, but even he didn’t make the kinds of hairpin turns Simone could. High Priestess of Soul (RCA, 1967) zips from Chuck Berry to Duke Ellington to “Work Song” and “Take Me To The Water.” The same album that has “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” has “The Look of Love” and “Cherish.” In 1968, right after Martin Luther King was assassinated, she recorded a live album that’s filled with sorrow and anger (“Sunday In Savannah,” “Backlash Blues,” “Why [The King of Love Is Dead]”), alongside a couple of Bee Gees songs, something from Hair, a Gershwin tune, “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” and a lovely Jimmy Webb ballad. Who would dare? Who could pull that off? Charles, maybe? Aretha in ’68?

She did a bunch of Dylan songs, more George Harrison than Lennon & McCartney songs (on Emergency Ward, she makes soul-protest epics out of “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It A Pity”). One album, Here Comes The Sun, has “Just Like A Woman,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “My Way,” and how do you make sense out of that? Even “Feeling Good,” one of her signature pieces, comes from an unlikely place: it’s by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, from their musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of The Crowd. Simone covered Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and later on, in 1978, did Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl.” That show at Montreux, where “Feelings” becomes an agonizing psychodrama, also includes a scattered but intense reading of Janis Ian’s “Stars” that’s like a musical ’70s Cassavettes film, self-indulgent and rambling, but with flashes of such raw emotion that you can’t look away. With Simone, it didn’t matter how high the schlock quotient; here was someone who could find (or at least look for) depth in Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon.”

The only time I saw Nina Simone live was in a hotel ballroom in 1993 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, headlining a bill that also included McCoy Tyner. She was pre-promoting a new studio album, her first in a long time, A Single Woman (on Elektra), and I remember her being irritated, just in general. Maybe at the crowd, or the venue. It was a performance that keeps you in knots: Is this going to go well? Is she even going to stay on the stage? A Single Woman is an odd thing to begin with. There are three Rod McKuen songs on it, including the title track, and something from Yentl. Also in the mix, three standards, “The Folks Who Live On The Hill,” “The More I See You” and “If I Should Lose You.” That’s the deal you make with Nina Simone, and it’s what makes her legacy such a jumble. At the Jazz Fest concert, I was anxious, because I finally was in a room (albeit an acoustically-challenged hall designed for banquets and testimonial dinners) with the great Nina Simone, a one-time opportunity, and I wanted it to go well, but she kept slipping in and out of focus. This album and tour were orchestrated to be a comeback, and bar was so high. Every so often, something would snap into place, and then she’d meander off again. At least that’s how I recall it. I go back to the album now, and time’s been kind to it, McKuen, the Bergmans and all. And I went over to Spotify and found this final Simone album had been expanded with outtakes: The Beatles, Prince, Bob Marley, and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter.” Of course: to the end, she pulled from everywhere and Simoned everything she touched.

june 1965

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It’s mid-June 1965, and school is almost done, and you’re one of those kids who are glued (it might as well be literally) to the radio. In the New York City vicinity, there are a few Top 40 options, and depending on the time of the day and which dj’s shift it is, you’re tuned to one or the other on your crappy little mono device, one tinny plug nestled in your ear canal. In the afternoon, WMCA has a chart countdown, so you know precisely where each of your fave 45s lands in the Hierarchy of Pop, and since you aren’t aware of such things as payola and promotion and industry favors and all that, you take this listing quite seriously, as though there was some measurable distance between let’s say the #14 single (and former “sure shot” and ‘MCA local premiere) “Back In My Arms Again” by The Supremes and the one jumping up to #12, Bacharach & David’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love” as sung by Jackie DeShannon. This was a half-century ago this week and you might say it was Pop’s pinnacle, and the week in question does not even have a single by The Beatles in the Top 50, and “Like A Rolling Stone” hasn’t been released yet.

That’s how great the summer of ’65 was: there could be a week without The Beatles on the radio and still be a snapshot of an insane creative explosion. In the top 10: Motown (The Four Tops at #1 with “I Can’t Help Myself”), soul (Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, The Marvelows), British bands (The Stones, The Yardbirds), “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, “Wooly Bully” by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs. No wonder we couldn’t shut off the radio. We could switch over to one of the other stations if Lenny Welch or The Letterman turned up in WMCA’s rotation, and when we switched back, there might be something new and exciting: “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves, Ian Whitcomb’s “You Turn Me On.” Even Elvis had a good single out, “(Such An) Easy Question” from the cinematic escapade Tickle Me. And slipping out of the Top 10, The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda.”

It’s commonplace among a certain generation to rhapsodize about a musical world where The Beau Brummels, The Jive Five and The Kinks all hang out together, weeks where, way down at the bottom of the chart, records by The Dave Clark Five, Little Anthony & The Imperials and Wilson Pickett are about to start their ascent, where Tom Jones, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders and (posthumously) Sam Cooke are clumped together and there are new 45s by The 4 Seasons and Johnny Rivers. But if you weren’t around in the early summer of 1965, what would you make of this moment, and wouldn’t you wish that we would please shut the fuck up about this “golden age”? Wouldn’t you want to send the lot of us off on that insane “Flower Power Cruise” where members of Herman’s Hermits, The Monkees, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Turtles and The Grass Roots are entertaining a ship of boomers, just let that peace’n’love boat drop off the end of the world so at last no one has to listen anymore to “Happy Together” and “Daydream Believer” (can you imagine the amount of crowd-karaoke on that vessel?). It was a half-century ago!! Did people in 1965 still reminisce about those glorious musical days of the First World War?

So, guilty. But here’s what’s going on: There’s a play about The Kinks (#32, “Set Me Free”) currently on the West End. The Brian Wilson (#18, “Help Me, Rhonda”) biopic is in theaters and getting nice reviews. A band called The Rolling Stones (#5 “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction”) is playing this week at a stadium in Nashville. Jersey Boys (#40, “Girl Come Running”) is still drawing crowds in midtown U.S.A., and the life and music of Bert Berns (#33, “I Want Candy”) is the subject of another musical (Piece of My Heart). This isn’t going away. Sorry. And sorry for a chart that has slots for Robert Goulet and Ronnie Dove. That’s the trade-off of the musical welcome mat at WMCA’s door. I guarantee, however, that if you make a playlist of the 57 songs on the June 16, 1965 chart, start with The Four Tops and end with Dino, Desi & Billy, you’ll hear stuff that will knock you out, beyond the songs you’ve long ago tired of. Have you heard Billy Stewart’s “Sitting In The Park” lately, or “Do The Boomerang” by Jr. Walker & The All-Stars? Do you know how terrific “Just A Little” by The Beau Brummels and “Concrete and Clay” by The Unit 4+2 are? Maybe The Chiffons’ psych-pop-girl-group-epic “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” (#17) has escaped you over the fifty years of its existence. Lucky you. You get to hear it for the first time.

close up the honky tonks

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The Everly Brothers’ Roots came out in 1968. Its first song, after a snippet of a 1952 radio program with The Everly Family, was a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and its penultimate track was Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” I played that album nearly as much as I listened to The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which included Gram Parsons singing lead vocals on Haggard’s “Life In Prison.” So that was how Merle Haggard made his way into my record collection, and early in 1969, I bought a copy of Pride In What I Am by Merle Haggard and The Strangers, their eighth album, which meant that I had a lot of backtracking to do, circling around to Swinging Doors, Sing Me Back Home, all the way in reverse to his impressive 1965 debut Strangers. He had a run of a dozen straight top 5 country singles (most #1) from ’65 through ’69, and damned if you can’t program them in sequence — and start with ’64’s #10 “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” for a bonus — and come out with maybe the best country album of the decade: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” “Working Man Blues” and a batch of others, ending with “Okie From Muskogee.”

A tricky one, that last chart-topper, because coming out in the post-Woodstock September of 1969, it was a dismissal of the counter-culture, the anti-war students, the pot-smoking hippies. Haggard had written a flag-waving defense of Nixon’s “great silent majority” (although Nixon wouldn’t uncork that phrase until that November), in the middle of the Vietnam mess, and how could it be ok to be ok with Haggard who, it seemed, was against everything we were for (e.g., smoking marijuana, making a “party out of lovin’,” all that)? But you know what? It was fine: The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram on lead vocal, did “Sing Me Back Home,” The Grateful Dead took a stab at “Mama Tried” many times (and “Okie” at least once at the Fillmore East, with The Beach Boys), and The Dead’s countrified colleagues The New Riders of The Purple Sage bravely attempted “Working Man Blues” even though Marmaduke and his band were not remotely in the same league as Merle and his Strangers. Haggard built his soapbox a few crates higher with the follow-up “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” even more confrontational, and you could see it as cynical Agnewish red meat if you like, but he got that out of his system and made a Bob Wills tribute album in 1970 that expunged any sins.

That period, ’68-’70ish, was when I entered Haggard country, but I didn’t see him live until April 1974 when he played Felt Forum in NYC. It may’ve been my first “real” Country Show (the twangy rock bands that played Fillmore East didn’t count), and then it was almost twenty years until the next time I caught him (at Tramps), followed in another decade or so by an opening set for Bob Dylan at the Beacon. Lately, I’ve been thinking I need to see him one more time, but he’s been elusive: this week he was in Englewood, NJ, and I couldn’t schlep out there. The end of June finds him in Westbury and in Atlantic City, but I don’t think I have the means to get out to those gigs, so in the meantime I’ve been listening to a lot of his older albums, and to the new duets set with Willie Nelson, the reflective, comfortably creaky Django and Jimmie. There’s a one-more-round feeling on this album, a summing up: they sing about their influences, Reinhardt and Rodgers, on the title track, reminisce about Johnny Cash, sing an old Dylan song, trade stories about bad behavior (“The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” “Live This Long”). They revisit Haggard’s honky-tonk standard “Swinging Doors,” and Nelson’s even more-vintage “Family Bible.”

On one track, “Somewhere Between,” it’s Willie on his own, but otherwise the two might as well be in adjoining rocking chairs: Haggard just turned 78 in April, Nelson hit 82 the same month, and they have nothing to prove. They can relax, cut fourteen songs in a few days. They aren’t Outlaws, or Highwaymen, or God knows, Older-Bro-Country guys. I’d say it’s easy to be yourself when you’re legends who don’t have to worry about making radio songs, but the truth is, I don’t think they ever gave one crap, even when they were having hits. When I got the copy of Pride In What I Am that was the building block of my Haggard vinyl collection, it wasn’t only because The Byrds and The Everly Brothers gave me license to cross over into the Country lane. I took one look at that cover, Haggard and his crew in some hobo jungle, smoking cigarettes, mean and defiant, Haggard staring into the camera lens, looking like John Garfield in a ’40s Warner Brothers film, holding a wickedly cool guitar, and that was enough. Plus, the band was called The Strangers. I heard Haggard originals that I still return to, “The Day The Rains Came,” “I’m Bringin’ Home Good News,” and songs by Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. When “Okie From Muskogee” came out later that year, I was already on the Haggard train, and I really didn’t mind that he wouldn’t like my long and shaggy hair. Anyway, maybe he was kidding, right?

the goodbye melodies

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Twice during the seven-season run of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner used Mr. Acker Bilk’s elegiac “Stranger On The Shore,” and when I think about the show, that’s one of the music cues that pops into my head. It’s instantly evocative of the ’60s before The British Invasion, the Kennedy Years. It feels like sunset, seen from a sailboat off the coast of Hyannis Port. Some people call that period of time Camelot, but that seems altogether too regal and antiquated to me, a word that fails to capture how modern everything felt, how alive, maybe especially if you were a kid discovering pop music, which I was. Even something as simply pretty as the melody Mr. Bilk played on his clarinet had romance in it, and what is romance but the heart’s expression of potential? On Top 40 radio — the stations I listened to in New York City, WMCA, WABC, WINS — the disc jockeys would play instrumentals often, to transition into the news, to end one dj’s shift and start another, and the air was filled with songs without words in 1962 and 1963: “Telstar,” The Stripper,” “Green Onions,” “Alley Cat,” “A Swingin’ Safari.”

’62 was also the year of Nelson Riddle’s “Theme From Route 66,” with all its thrilling pop momentum, “The Lonely Bull,” the first hit by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, “Desafinado” by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, which brought Bossa Nova to Top 40, the trad jazz of Kenny Ball’s “Midnight In Moscow,” “Walk On The Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith, “Rinky Dink” by Dave “Baby” Cortez. String a bunch of these records together in a playlist, and throw in some Ace Cannon, Marketts, King Curtis (the durable “Soul Twist”) and you have a snapshot of 1962 without a single lyric being sung. Housewives doing conservative bumps and grinds to David Rose’s “The Stripper,” bar mitzvahs where the band played “A Swingin’ Safari” and suburban Jews danced to “Alley Cat.” You get hints of what was on TV (that Route 66 theme, and the “Theme From Ben Casey“), what was around the cultural corner (the Brazilian wave, the California sound of “Surfer’s Stomp,” the Memphis soul of “Green Onions,” Herb Alpert’s juggernaut), and you hear the waning but still prevalent beat of the twist.

When Vin Scelsa, who had been on east coast radio for close to five decades, did his sign-off show, one of the tracks he played was “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio. His colleague Dennis Elsas used to end his shift with that instrumental, and I hadn’t heard it in ages, but it was an instant memory jolt, from Elsas’s show, certainly, but also from when it was a hit single in the winter of ’62-’63. Tracks like that could become pop hits then: this was Brazilian-influenced West Coast Jazz, on an indie label based in the Bay Area (Fantasy Records), and was a cut on an album that was mostly made up of jazz interpretations of songs written for the film Black Orpheus (“Samba de Orpheus” was the 45’s B-side). For the first minute or so, it’s a straight-forward tune that Guaraldi plays without flourish, but then it takes a turn and starts to swing in a way that would become part of the mainstream musical vernacular when Guaraldi started composing for the Peanuts TV specials. There’s just something so groovy and delightful about this: I didn’t know much about jazz then (I was, like not even twelve years old), or anything about the concept of Cool Jazz, but it felt sophisticated compared to most of what was around it on WMCA. More grown-up than let’s say Marcie Blaine’s “Bobby’s Girl.” Not that I wasn’t glued to everything the WMCA Good Guys would play for me in late ’62.

That’s something that’s completely gone, the hit instrumental. But in 1962 and into 1963, those songs were an important element in the pop mix: “Washington Square” by The Village Stompers, “More” by Kai Winding, Jack Nitzsche’s moody “The Lonely Surfer,” teen things like “Wild Weekend,” surf hits like “Pipeline,” guitar gods Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack, novelties like “Yakety Sax.” If you were tuned to the radio then, as Martin Scorsese was, there was nothing at all unusual about it; Scorsese used the mostly-wordless “El Watusi” (1961) in his first feature, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door, and in his most recent film, 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, he cues up “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” the Allen Toussaint version, to wrap things up. It’s a goodbye melody.

And it’s been covered a lot, as an instrumental, and with a lyric by Carel Werber. The lyric is ok, and there are some nice recordings of that enhanced song (Johnny Rivers, June Christy, the Sandpipers, the minor hits by Steve Alaimo and Shelby Flint), but the words are superfluous, as they almost always are when they’re grafted onto a hit instrumental (“Stranger On The Shore” is not helped one bit by making things more literal, and you do not want to hear any of the vocal attempts at “Telstar”). It’s best when it’s just played sans frills, by Chet Atkins on guitar, by The Ramsey Lewis Trio with a more pronounced Latin sway, by The Roy Meriwether trio, who find a little connection to “La Bamba” in it. Or if you must hear words, you could try French ones. But there’s something about the original that’s more seductive; it sounds like it’s something Guaraldi’s been noodling around with, that he had this piece of melody and, after cutting a batch of those Black Orpheus tunes and needed a few things to round out the LP, he suggested to his bassist (Monty Budwig) and drummer (Colin Bailey), “Hey, let’s cut one.” That’s almost surely not the case (there are a few takes, after all: take 3 is below), but to me it has an end-of-session vibe, the last song of the night. Closing time.

the voice of warner-reprise, r.i.p. stan cornyn

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“No one is born sophisticated. It’s a place you have to crawl to, crawling out of hayseed country, over miles of unsanded pavement, past Trouble, past corners and forks with no auto club signs to point you, till you get there and you wake up wiser.”

That was on the back of an album jacket, and the album, it must be said, is not a memorable one. It has a couple of hit singles that everybody knows, and couple of Beatles covers, songs by Dylan and Brian Wilson and Jagger & Richards. The playing, by the guys and gal who played on almost everything recorded in Los Angeles in those days, is fine as far as it’s asked to go, and the young lady on the cover is, as was said, a babe. Mod horizontal stripes top and bottom, red leather mini-skirt and matching boots (the album is called Boots, so your eye is drawn to them, after taking in the way the girl is staring straight into the camera). There is nothing that exceptional going on, except you flip the cover over, and you read.

“A young fragile living thing on its own in a wondrous-wicked-woundup-wasted-wild-worried-wisedup-warmbodied world. On her own. Earning her daily crepes and Cokes by singing the facts of love. Her voice tells as much as her songs. No faked-up grandure, her voice is like it is: a little tired, little put down, a lot loving.”

It doesn’t matter so much that the vocalist doesn’t, couldn’t, live up to that stream of writing. She would have to be a modern Mildred Bailey, a pop Patsy Cline, Tuesday Weld with vocal equipment to match her vixenish allure, to be truly worthy of those words, but never mind: she’s Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of the boss of the label, and the single is unmistakably a fine thing, and if she requires some eloquent prose to give her mystery that a version of “Flowers On The Wall” can’t contain, what of it? The album jacket is a marketing work-of-art, and no one, no one, filled the back of a 12″ X 12″ cardboard space with a more deft touch than Stan Cornyn, who passed away this week.

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He made label hype seductive and witty, insightful and novelistic (some of his notes for the elder Sinatra are like miniature short stories). As head of Creative Services for Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, he came up with ad campaigns that made the efforts of other record companies seem creaky, tired, obvious. Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Van Dyke Parks, The Fugs were advertised with copy that acknowledged their commercial limitations (and whatever we now know of Young, Mitchell, The Dead, they were not initially an easy sell). And you could find, on the backs of albums you might not otherwise consider buying by, say, Dean Martin, The Anita Kerr Singers, Trini Lopez, Harpers Bizarre, prose that on its own was worth lingering over in the easy listening racks of your local department store record department. Cornyn also invented the WB-Reprise double-LP Loss Leader sampler, and in the very first one, Songbook, gave out the phone number to reach him and his colleagues in Creative Services: 213-843-5115.

His notes for the masterpiece Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim are as great as they need to be to reflect the genius within. They begin thusly:

“It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystals in a cement mixer.”

Here’s something I’ve said to people who have asked me how I got into the music-business racket: I believed I had one skill that could earn me my keep and pay my rent and buy me Buitoni macaroni and Chips Ahoy cookies; I could write some. And all I did the livelong day was listen to music. How could this possibly add up to anything? Stan Cornyn helped me figure it out. Not personally: I didn’t call his number at work. But I read the liner notes and the ads and the artist blurbs in those first few Loss Leaders, and thought, this might be the way. There was someone at a record company who did this stuff??? I could write the essays or the ads, maybe? And lo and behold, I did. And copied Cornyn as closely as I could without getting sued for tone-plagiarism. I wrote a good number of album notes, and moved from publicity writing to advertising writing at Arista Records, and so on.

What Cornyn taught me was that selling through words could have literary merit, that trying to convey, in an advocating sense, what the music within the sleeve, or the music being pitched, had to say, was something almost noble. His work was conversational, with exceptional pitch for detail, and behind it was the idea that one way to cut through the noise of hype was to do it quietly, with humor. Another way was to invite people to enter a Pigpen look-alike contest, or win a date with a Fug, or please, please, check out these Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman albums because we have all these unsold copies lying around. Warner-Reprise was by far the coolest record label of the late ’60s and early ’70s. By far. And not only because the A&R was brilliant, although it surely was, but because Stan Cornyn’s touch, so distinctive, was the key to the label’s public sensibility: it was where Jimi Hendrix and Tiny Tim, Petula Clark and Frank Zappa, The Vogues and Fleetwood Mac, Sinatras and Everlys, were all embraced, and when we sent in our $2 for those Songbook and Record Show samplers, we never knew what we might discover. They were Cornyn’s doing, along with all those classic ads and notes that, really, somebody needs to combine in one volume. Often, they were the best thing about the album.

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are you ready for this?

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There’s a “new” Jackie DeShannon album floating around called All The Love: The Lost Atlantic Recordings, about half of which turned up on an expanded edition of her Atlantic debut Jackie, the rest consisting of tracks she cut in 1973 with producer Tom Dowd that until now haven’t been compiled. There were a number of attempts at Atlantic to emulate the creative success of Dusty In Memphis, albums with Lulu, Cher, even Carmen McRae, and they all fall short of that bar, but the biggest disappointment was how the label just couldn’t figure out what to do with Jackie. That label debut should’ve been a love match, DeShannon’s maple-honey voice and the production of Jerry Wexler, arrangements by Arif Mardin, cut in Memphis with guys like Reggie Young, Mike Leach and Bobby Emmons, but despite sweet and funky versions of John Prine’s “Paradise,” Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break A Heart” and Van Morrison’s “I Wanna Roo You,” it may have been just a bit too relaxed, too pastoral, where Dusty’s album had been vibrant, shimmering pop-soul.

Her other Atlantic album, Your Baby Is A Lady, has one terrific track, Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk,” but otherwise steers into the adult-contemporary lane and cruises along breezily. All The Love fits somewhere in between, and you can see why most of the music sat on the shelf: “Easy Evil,” “If You Like My Music” and “Good Old Song” have an unassuming, standard-issue early ’70s post-Tapestry singer-songwriter casualness. The four cuts produced by Van Morrison in ’73 — first issued on the Jackie…Plus collection — are nice to have back in circulation, but DeShannon-at-Atlantic should have resulted in at least one Dusty-esque classic album, and this one isn’t that.

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A shame, because it makes it a little bit harder to explain how it is that so many people, myself included, have a deep and durable affection for Jackie DeShannon. Her discography has historically been a shambles, although in recent years it’s begun to get sorted out with reissues, singles anthologies and two terrific compilations on Ace U.K. of her songs that’ve been covered by artists as diverse as Brenda Lee, The Searchers, The Carpenters, The Ronettes, Irma Thomas, The Byrds, Marianne Faithfull. You can’t sum her up; she’s like a female Gene Pitney or Bobby Darin, jumping confidently from genre to genre, forming fascinating alliances: she’s co-written with Randy Newman, Jack Nitzsche and Jimmy Page (and I’m fairly certain that’s something only she can claim), been backed up by Byrds, cut folk songs and standards and Brill Building songs (her biggest hit was Bacharach & David’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love”), played Monopoly with George Harrison, co-starred in a movie with Bobby Vee, wrote “When You Walk In The Room” and “Bette Davis Eyes,” cut the original version of “Needles and Pins.” She’s been a rockabilly chick and a chanteuse (on a song called “Francoise”). Like Darin was, she’s a gifted mimic who is also an innovator, throwing divergent elements in a blender to make a pop smoothie. Jackie helped invent folk-rock with “Needles and Pins,” “Come and Stay With Me,” “When You Walk In The Room” and “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” and her Laurel Canyon album was one of the earliest examples of laid-back L.A. shawl-pop (there’s a DeShannon song on Jackie called “Laid Back Days,” but it was 1972, so cut her a break, ok?).

The same year Tapestry came out, Jackie released Songs, featuring some of the same musical characters (Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, that crowd), and in a way her narrative parallels Carole King’s, except that DeShannon was recording her own albums all through the 1960s, and always seemed on the cusp of stardom, especially after the Bacharach-David song clicked in ’65, and then again when her own co-written “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” cracked the top 5 in ’69. Why couldn’t she string together more hits? Was she too hard to define, this girl who could flip effortlessly from Ray Charles (“Drown In My Own Tears”) to Bob Wills (“Faded Love”), who was early on the Dylan train (three of his songs on her debut, Nitzsche-arranged LP), who was part of the Los Angeles pop scene with Glen Campbell, Sharon Sheeley, Herb Alpert, Delaney Bramlett, P.J. Proby (see the songs on the Sheeley Songwriter collection)? The albums that came out on Liberty and then Imperial were grab-bags of random singles, tracks recycled from one LP to another, to the point where you could never be sure whether you were buying DeShannon songs for the second or third time. What would be really helpful is a chronological boxed set of all her ’60s recordings, with her songwriter demos, because the ones that have circulated are first-rate ’60s pop (again, like Carole King’s).

If I had to pick two ’60s Jackie DeShannon albums to start with, they’d be Breakin’ It Up On The Beatles Tour! and Are You Ready For This?. The first one is self-explanatory, in a way, but it implies a live album, which it isn’t. It was a way to capitalize on the fact that Jackie was one of The Beatles’ opening acts, and it has a batch of her best earliest singles — “You Won’t Forget Me” is a highlight — and Randy Newman’s “Did He Call Today Mama,” two Newman-DeShannon songs (“She Don’t Understand Him Like I Do,” “Hold Your Head High”), “Should I Cry” (DeShannon & Nitzsche). On Are You Ready…, Jackie does three Bacharach & David songs, and elsewhere (especially on the self-penned title track) does an incredible simulation of the then-red-hot Supremes. If you’ve ever wondered how Diana Ross would have sounded singing Goffin & King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” with the Wrecking Crew, this is where you’ll find out. You have to dig to crack all the pop mysteries of Jackie DeShannon, piece together her formidable legacy, but the music is out there waiting to get its hooks in you.

drifting through the city: the urban soul of ben e. king

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Side One of The Drifters Golden Hits LP is either the first or second best song-sequence of uptown-soul in the known universe, depending on whether, at any given moment, you decide that Side Two is superior. Ben E. King, who passed away this week — and it’s a bad week when the singers of “Louie Louie” and “Spanish Harlem” die within days of each other — sings five of the six songs on the A side: “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “I Count The Tears,” and together they represent the apex not only of The Drifters: Phase Two (Phase One being the reign of the more ethereally soulful Clyde McPhatter, who has the distinction of stepping aside in groups for Jackie Wilson and Ben E. King), but a high point in the history of Atlantic Records as a label, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as producers, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman as songwriters. Of those six songs, four are by Pomus & Shuman, and they are sweeping and rapturous in a way that no other pop music was on the radio.

Cultural history was made with the release of “There Goes My Baby,” the initial single by this edition of The Drifters: it’s something so simple and so complex that you could write a dissertation on it, and people sort of have. You can read about it in books about the Brill Building, Atlantic, Leiber & Stoller, and in Jerry Wexler’s autobiography. It sounds like madness, the echo on the drums, the searing strings, the unusual song structure, the abrupt change of course on the bridge. It’s R&B, certainly, or post-doo wop at least, but what R&B is so flamboyantly arranged, what doo wop travels so far from the streetcorner to this tower of sound?

Every King obit leads with “Stand By Me,” his most well-known hit as a solo artist, and that’s expected. Before and after that record, however, his voice defined an urban romanticism. The swirling, scene-setting cascade of strings stops on “This Magic Moment” for an instant to let him break through with the title phrase: he’s singing about a kiss, a kiss that opens up an entire world of possibility, and he might as well be reading a passage from The Great Gatsby, so overtaken, his heart leaping with fulfillment. How many singers have made fools of themselves (I’m looking at you, Jay Black) trying to capture the exhilaration within “This Magic Moment”? How can you listen to “Save The Last Dance For Me” and not feel the ache within King’s generosity? There’s an element of faith in this song, in Pomus’ perfect lyrics. She’ll be back, it says. But how can you not hear a hint of doubt? Who knows what might happen on the dance floor, where people can get swept away?

King wasn’t in The Drifters for very long. There aren’t rare or lost album cuts or B sides where he sings lead. There’s that cluster of singles, each one perfect, and then he was off on his own. Flip Golden Hits over, and that’s what went on with The Drifters after he left, and you can argue whether “Up On The Roof,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Under The Boardwalk” and “On Broadway” are only as brilliant as the singles from the King era. What’s inarguable — meaning I simply won’t stand for any dispute — is that “Spanish Harlem” is a triumph. It was written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and it turns up on almost every compilation of Spector productions, but what it is is a Leiber & Stoller production with a Stan Applebaum arrangement. In my fantasy Brill Building version of West Side Story, “Spanish Harlem” is a centerpiece, because let’s be honest, it’s the kind of record The Jets and The Sharks would really be listening to. It’d be coming from transistor radios in the playgrounds, playing at the gym dance. There’s the seductive Latin sway, the plain-spoken poetry.

There are so many Ben E. King records that I love: Pomus & Shuman’s “Here Comes The Night,” “Souvenir of Mexico” (the 45 version) and “Ecstasy,” the ones he did with Bert Berns (“Around The Corner,” “It’s All Over,” “The Way You Shake It”), the singles “Don’t Play That Song,” “Seven Letters,” “The Record (Baby I Love You),” some of the standards on Sings For Soulful Lovers (“What A Difference A Day Made,” “It’s All In The Game”), Leiber & Stoller’s “Yes,” “Where’s The Girl” and “On The Horizon,” Pomus & Spector’s gripping “Young Boy Blues.” I know he was born in North Carolina, but he moved to New York City as a child, and more than any of his contemporaries in the Atlantic soul clan and its auxiliary (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Don Covay, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex), he sounded like the city. The records didn’t feel like the ones cut in Memphis or Muscle Shoals; they had a New York mixture of grime and sophistication, they felt lit by streetlamps. I think what was so striking about “There Goes My Baby,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Here Comes The Night” was that you were hearing all of the city at once, high culture and low, Latin music and R&B, the promise of romance and the crush of disappointment. Of all the great ’60s soul men, Ben E. King belonged to us.

leaves of red and gold

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Near the end of his set in Nashville the other night, Bob Dylan sang a song from his most recent album. Not a remarkable thing, usually, hardly worth commenting on, except for a long while, Dylan’s concerts have been the same nineteen songs in the same running order, no night-to-night variations, but he signaled to the band and they proceeded to do an aching version of the standard “Autumn Leaves.” It was unexpected, brief, spellbinding. You get used to being thrown curves by Dylan; in a way, the whole current set is a curve, reliant as no set by someone who’s been recording for more than a half-century could reasonably hope to be on songs from the last decade or so. But if you’d asked me to make a wager, I wouldn’t have put cash on hearing Bob Dylan sing “Autumn Leaves” live. Now I have, and maybe it’ll be part of the setlist from now on (we’ll see if he brings it out in New Orleans tonight*), or maybe that was that. That was Dylan’s live “Autumn Leaves.” Who knows?

The song has been around since the 1940s, first as the French “Les Feuilles Mortes” (the dead leaves), music by Joseph Kosma, lyrics by Jacques Prevert. Then Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics, and this simple, wistful lament has been endlessly covered, instrumentally and vocally, ever since. Jazz musicians from Miles to Coltrane to Getz to Jarrett to Baker to Evans have explored it at some length and depth, Nat “King” Cole tackled it in Japanese, and there have been lyric-less rock covers by Link Wray, Mickey Baker and Santo & Johnny. Leiber and Stoller produced a version by Cornell Gunther of The Coasters, Little Willie John released it as a single on King, and vocal groups like The Mills Brothers, The Tymes and The Regents have harmonized on it. Most French singers of note (Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, Edith Piaf, Fran├žoise Hardy) have stuck to the dead-leaves original. And the list of pop singers who have watched the red and gold leaves drift by their window is extensive: Dylan might have picked it up from Sinatra — the songs on Shadows in The Night come from that songbook — but you can be sure he’s also familiar with the takes by Willie Nelson, Joan Baez (in French), Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby.

It’s about romantic loss. It’s about the passage of time, seasonal triggers. “The summer kisses, the sunburned hand I used to hold.” Mercer was so brilliant at that, the persistence of memory (“I Remember You”), the evocative power of nature. “Autumn Leaves” sits right beside his “Summer Wind” (“We strolled that golden sand”) as a study of how a change in the weather, a shift in the breeze, the color of leaves can send someone off into a sad spiral. The last line of “Autumn Leaves,” as sung by pretty much anybody (examples: Iggy Pop, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis) and especially by Dylan on the Nashville stage, is a blow to the heart: “I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” That’s another thing Mercer did better than any other lyricist, I think: bookend his stories, close them in almost-matching brackets. Think of “Fools Rush In.” First line: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Last line: “So open up your heart and let this fool rush in.” Or “Summer Wind”: “The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea” to the capper, “My fickle friend, the summer wind.” “Autumn Leaves” does that also: you see the leaves at the start, find out what they mean at the end.

Sinatra did “Autumn Leaves” on Where Are You, but of course it would have fit perfectly on September of My Years also. Because songs about memory and loss are also songs about growing old, time creeping along, the things we remember that we’d prefer not to, the things we try to cling to. There’s Bob Dylan, about to turn 74 next month, on a Nashville stage bringing so much gravity to “Autumn Leaves,” and a few blocks away at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there’s an exhibit depicting through images, artifacts and music the scene-stirring impact he and Johnny Cash had on Nashville almost fifty years ago. You stroll around the museum, hear songs from Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline — all recorded in the same town he’s playing in — and see him on the debut of The Johnny Cash Show and think, well, sure: how far is the distance from “I Threw It All Away” to “Autumn Leaves”? He seemed a little nervous on that Cash show. “I once held her in my arms,” he sang. “She said she would always stay.” And the next night: “Since you went away, the days grow long.” The room was hushed, and then it erupted. The theater was so strict about cameras and audio equipment that the moment might not have been captured, but trust me, it was stunning.

(*Note: he did)

we sang dirges in the dark

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Manuscript of Don McLean’s “American Pie” sells for over a million bucks. “The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages, 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text…including lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes.”

Some things in the original draft of “American Pie”:

1. In the first version, “The Day The Music Died” wasn’t in February. It was a random day in August when McLean misplaced his 45 rpm adapter and his records played all wobbly.

2. Fire, it turns out, was not “The Devil’s only friend.” The Devil was also friendly with Earth & Wind, but they snubbed him at a Hell Mixer.

3. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick”: really about fitness guru Jack LaLanne.

4. Missing verse about Dino, Desi & Billy and Gary Lewis & The Playboys: (“The sons of laughter on Hullaballoo/One Italian, one half-Jew.”)

5. Note: “What rhymes with ‘doorstep’? ‘Poor schlep?’ ‘Dinah Shore-step’?”

6. On page 4, McLean scribbled other ideas for “coded” rock figures. “The Peacock [Jimi Hendrix] flamed in Monterey/While Soulman [Otis Redding] thought about the Bay/And Animals [Eric Burdon &] came out to play/The day the music died.”

7. McLean meant to say his “Levi’s” were dry. Oops.

8. Some parts are in capital letters, underlined, with “Nailed it!!” written in the margins. McLean was particularly happy, it seems, with “My hands were clenched with fists of rage!” And who can blame him? “Fists of Rage: also screenplay idea for rock-kung fu movie.”

9. Handwritten note on the bottom of page 12: “Too obtuse, maybe? Will anyone figure out refs to Janis, Fillmore, ‘Nam, Stones, etc.? Oh, screw it. If they’re confused, they’re idiots.”