Junk Drawer Part I: a Timeline of Rock ‘n’ Roll and America

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Mose Allison: authenticity, race and the blues

[Mose Allison. Source for photo.]

A casual listener of Mose Allison’s music may not immediately discern his race.

It may be a point of interest. You may jump to conclusions after listening to his debut album from 1957, Back Country Suite. Plenty of people have assumed Mose Allison to be black because he played the blues, but, in fact, Allison was a white man, born on his grandfather’s farm in the Mississippi Delta.

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Does his race matter? Yes and no. For Allison (and anyone should agree) his whiteness protected him while growing up in Mississippi, joining the army and eventually making a living with the blues in New York. He benefitted from his race–so what gives him the right to sing the blues?

An article from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism asks the same question. The article, “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” written by Joel Rudinow, raises questions of authenticity and ownership of the blues, which I won’t reproduce here in full. Rudinow ends the article with an almost call to action, saying that the blues need to be allowed to evolve.

This kind of “blues purism” is no way to keep the blues alive either. The blues, like any oral tradition, remains alive to the extent that it continues to evolve and things continue to “grow out of it.”

It’s clear: the author of the article had his own biases when it came to white blues performers. Although the article was written in the 1990s, it presented an interesting point of discussion about race and authenticity in music that still needs to be going on–a discussion that clearly I am not qualified to lead but that I would gladly glean from.

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Back Country Suite is a short album. Even though the whole tracklist is a little over 30 minutes long, the amalgamation of the blues, jazz and bebop is apparent from the first chord Allison plays in “New Ground.” Listen to “Blues (Young Man)” to hear Allison’s quintessential, almost feminine, southern, bluesy drawl.

R-7408666-1440883687-8777.jpegRecorded with Prestige records in Hackensack, New Jersey, the album never peaked on the charts, but Allison went on to influence dozens of musicians from Eric Clapton, The Who, The Yardbirds, Belle and Sebastian and others. Allison’s work began with Back Country Suite, but it didn’t stop there.

Here’s what MOJO says:

Though he’s never made a poor record in his life, Back Country Suite remains Allison’s most potent work….[It] proved the ideal calling card, and he’s always found work easy to come by.

Because musicians of color rarely have the opportunity to be separated from their heritages and backgrounds, Allison shouldn’t be either. Recognize his race; recognize his talent. But most importantly, recognize the shoulders of those performers that he stood on.

Listen to the album here:

The songs and quiet dignity of Ella Fitzgerald

[Source for photo]

She’s been called the First Lady of Song. The Queen of Jazz. Lady Ella.

Ella Fitzgerald is perhaps one of the best examples of excellence in jazz music. She remains the figurehead of effortless style and impeccable performance.

Born in Virginia in 1917, Fitzgerald first found success in her late teens with Chick Webb and his band after she won an amateur singing competition at the Appolo Theater in Harlem. From there, she moved to a solo career and blossomed into the performer we know today.

One of the albums to come out of her solo years is “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook.” 

Released in 1956 on the Verve record label, this particular studio album of over 30 songs was cut in just three sessions. The pianist on the record, Paul Smith, said that most of the songs had only one take, according to MOJO.

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Source for photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ellaportersongbook.jpg

Songwriter Mel Torme, an incredible Fitzgerald fanboy, called the performer a simple person.

“She is a simple person. Her approach to life is simple,” he was known to have said.

Perhaps her simple outlook is what made her performance style so light and relaxing.

Anyone can recognize the cursive style and swing within Fitzgerald’s voice. Norman Granz, founder of Verve and eventually Fitzgerald’s manager, sought to marry Cole Porter’s subtle “cynical romance” with Fitzgerald’s cool demeanor.

Perhaps Granz gave Fitzgerald a push into the recording studio, but that’s where his contribution ends. The rest was all Ella.

The double album swells with 35 songs on its track list. Such classics as “Let’s Do It,” “It’s All Right With Me” and “Too Darn Hot” are among the songs that Fitzgerald used to ensure her status as an American icon.

As with most performers of color, Fitzgerald had to prove to others just how much she was actually worth while others were taken at face value. In many ways, she didn’t look like the conventional female performers of her day. It’s been said that Chick Webb didn’t even want to sign her to his band because of the way she looked.

While some people might think that despite Fitzgerald’s body shape, skin color and gender, she excelled in music, this author would never even broach that thought.

This author believes all of Fitzgerald is responsible for her success. Without her skin color, heritage, body type, gender and numerous other facets of her personality, she would not have been the talented performer that she was. It was everything about Fitzgerald that propelled her through the dark streets of New York City and straight into the spotlight on the world’s stage.

Listen to the full album:

Four Freshmen, five trombones, and one drastically changed world

[Source for both photos: All Music]

Without the Four Freshmen and the album “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones,” the musical world would be a very different place.

Forming in the late 1940s, the band has had countless members, with the last original member, Bob Flanigan, retiring in the mid-1990s. In name, the group still tours, but the original power of the Four Freshmen, Ross Barbour, Don Barbour, Hal Kratzsch and Bob Flanigan, is best known for tight-knit harmonies and influencing the likes of Brian Wilson, a man who would go on to form one of the best known American bands and produce one of the greatest albums of all time.

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In a biography about Wilson called “Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson” by Peter Carlin, the author describes Wilson’s first encounter with the Four Freshmen:

“…he took one of their albums— The Four Freshmen and the Five Trombones— and listened to the whole thing. The record mesmerized Brian, and talking about it later, he speaks in near-religious terms, describing his soul opening up, the music entering him and carrying him to another sphere of consciousness. … Soon he had all the group’s records, listening to them over and over again as he sat hunched over the piano, his fingers searching for the combination of notes and countermelodies that would unlock the secret harmonies in each song.”

(Carlin, Peter Ames. Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Kindle Locations 530-534). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.)

The album itself is filled with jazz standards like “Somebody Loves Me,” a Gershwin staple. Even a casual listener of the Four Freshmen can recognize the similarities in the Beach Boys’ later hits. But “Four Freshmen and Five Trombones” is more than just a quartet singing open harmony, big band jazz numbers. It is an album that showcases the musical abilities of the group, extending beyond simply singing. It is a concept album filled with 12 carefully placed songs selected among specific instruments and accompaniment.

MOJO had this to say about the album:

When Brian Wilson heard the Freshmen, he became obsessed by their harmonies and contemporary arrangements. … Later, the Beach Boys would even turn in an exact copy of the Freshmen’s Graduation Day. No-one disputes that “Pet Sounds” started here.

Regardless of where Brian Wilson went after listening to the Four Freshmen, it’s important to honor those bands whose shoulders current artists stand on, to honor their music and not just who listened to it.

Today, most people know who the Beach Boys are, but probably very few would mention the Four Freshmen. Without them, however, the world of music would be a different place.

On this day: The Temptations take ‘My Girl’ to number one

On this day in history, fifty-three years ago, The Temptations’ song “My Girl” went to number one on the U.S. singles chart.

The song, written by Smokey Robinson, was the first hit for the group and the first male-group hit for the Motown label.

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Perhaps the most memorable part of “My Girl” is its iconic instrumental intro. However, most people don’t know the memorable group of musicians behind that intro and many of the other Motown singles was a band called The Funk Brothers. In 2004, that band finally received the recognition it deserved with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

Today, “My Girl” is so much more than a song. It has permeated our culture and forever will hold a spot in American music history.

For more information on what happened on a certain day in music history, check out thisdayinmusic.com.

On this day: singer and legend Karen Carpenter was born

Karen Carpenter would have been 68 years old today. Carpenter, the other half of the brother-sister duo the Carpenters, was a drummer and singer for most of her short life.

She died of heart failure in 1983, at the age of 32. Although she’s been gone for over 30 years, her work continues to influence and inspire. She’s even been named, and rightly so, on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Before her death, little was known about eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa, the medical condition that Carpenter suffered from. (Some consider Carpenter to be the first “celebrity casualty of an eating disorder.”) Because of her celebrity, though, public awareness about eating disorders grew, and today we know more about to help those who suffer from these conditions.

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On this day, however, we should celebrate the music of the Carpenters and the immense talent of the band’s leading lady.

Today, listen to “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “Top Of The World” and the rest of the Carpenters’ music, and imagine Karen smiling down on you.

For more information on what happened on a certain day in music history, check out thisdayinmusic.com.

On this day: Simon and Garfunkel’s single Bridge Over Troubled Water reaches number one

Forty-eight years ago, on this day in history, Simon and Garfunkel’s single “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began its six-week stay at number one on the U.S. singles chart.

Often recognized as the duo’s signature song, Simon and Garfunkel first argued who would be the one to sing it. Simon wanted Garkunel to sing it in a “white choirboy way” and Garfunkel thought Simon’s falsetto would be better suited for the single. Ultimately, Garfunkel sang the tune, and, it’s been said, that Simon wishes he would have been the one to sing it.

The much-contested line at the beginning of the third verse, “Sail on Silver Girl
Sail on by/Your time has come to shine/All your dreams are on their way,” was thought to be an allusion to drug use. However, it actually refers to Simon’s then-wife Peggy Harper who found a few of her first gray hairs at the time of the song’s writing.

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Here’s what the book “The MOJO collection of the Greatest Albums of All Time” has to say about the album of the same name:

“Embellished with a Spector-ish production and a staggering arrangement, it has since made its presence in virtually every poll of best-ever singles.”

For more information on what happened on a certain day in music history, check out thisdayinmusic.com.

Music to your ears