Saturday, May 26, 2007

Philly sparks

Once again this week my writing head has been in neutral. I have a fair stack of vinyl lined up for possible future posts but I’m having trouble shifting the brain into gear to write anything around them, and I’m also feeling particularly lazy on the research front.

Part of the problem maybe that nothing in that stack of vinyl, as well loved and great as it all is, is jumping out and demanding to be played. That can bump me into writing action. In the end the motivation for this post came, in a round about sort of way, from listening to Mister C’s fill in show for Mr. Fine Wine over at Downtown Soulville. “Fill in” it maybe – Mister C plays a show a month in the Downtown Soulville slot – but in no way is the show a mere substitute, or a cheap bottle of plonk to Fine Wine’s rare vintage. Mister C plays some fantastic stuff. His latest show featured an hour of flat out brilliant soul music from his home town of Philadelphia. (One track in particular caused me to fire up an Internet search pretty sharpish, and lo and behold I found a minty sounding copy almost straightaway. I’ve paid my money and look forward to it dropping through the letterbox sometime soon. It will then join my blogworthy stack and you can expect to see it featured here sometime in the future).

I grew up hearing the Philly Sound of Gamble-Huff on the radio – the likes of the O’Jays, Harold Melvin, Billy Paul, and Teddy Pendergrass on the PIR imprint - but this show made me realise just how much great music had been coming out of Philadelphia before the Philly Sound, as I understood it, had become established. For example it hadn’t registered with me that Arctic was a Philly label.
I should of course have known this already from reading Larry’s occasional posts on all things Philly over at Funky 16 Corners, he’s a fan for sure.

So here is an example of the weird and wonderful(?) way my mind works: I had just been thinking my general laziness and lack of inspiration on the writing front could be in danger of reaching a critical situation – then listening to Mister C put me in mind of Philadelphia – hey presto the synapses sparked and from nowhere Billy Paul’s “It’s Critical” appeared on the top of my tracks to blog. The Philly Sound of Gamble and Huff was getting pretty long in the tooth by the time this was released, this was 1979 after all. “It’s Critical” appeared on Billy Paul’s last album for PIR “First Class”, which turned out to be something of a hiatus for him. I haven’t heard the album version. I have it as a “Special Disco Version” (again, this was 1979) on the b-side of the 12” “Bring The Family Back”. But don’t be put off by those dread words “Special Disco Version”, there are no cow bells or syndrums or extended pointlessness. In this case I suspect it just means a longer version. Just listen to those Philly session men cook, the track simmers beautifully throughout.

I played this record a lot back in the day. At the time of it’s release I was doing a bit of DJing and I seem to remember thinking I thought it was too sophisticated to fit into the sets I was playing so it didn’t get too many airings. At the same time I wanted to tell the world how great this track was, now finally all these years later, due to a random synaptic event, I am.

Billy Paul – It’s Critical 1979

Billy’s “First Class” album is available together with “Let ‘em in” and “Only The Strong Survive” on a 2 CD set from Edsel.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Faith & Hope

I have suffered another writers block this week. But I shouldn’t forget my listeners, after all the music is the main point of this blog. In these difficult times it’s good to turn to a record that I know nothing about. That way there isn’t much to say and I can just let the music speak for itself.

Brenda & Albert’s 1974 single fitted the bill in terms of obscurity. I say “fitted”, rather than “fits” because of course I couldn’t resist plonking “Brenda & Albert” into Google for a quick search. I was just giving up on the click throughs when I hit on some discussion on Faith, Hope & Charity on the Soulful Detroit forums.

Looking at the record label the only two things that had struck a chord with me were the names Paul Riser – a prolific producer and arranger who, I believe, started life at Motown – and the co-writer “A. Latimer” on “This Has Happened Before” - who could be the singer Almeta Latimer (or Lattimore)? Now I know a bit more, and crucially the identity of Brenda and Albert. They are Brenda Hilliard and Albert Bailey – Faith and Hope from Faith, Hope And Charity.

The SD forums often prove to be a goldmine of information, and you can find out much more background information on Brenda and Albert, FHC and the label Clarama here.

You learn something new every day. Result!

Now, if the mighty Blues can find enough fit players and beat those Red Devils later today that would be two results in one day.

Here are both sides of Brenda & Albert’s 1974 single. Feel uplifted and happy (hopefully the way I will be feeling later today) listening to “Talking About Loving You”; and enjoy the slow and soulful “This Has Happened Before” a STRONG b-side with a lovely guitar motif, great vocals from B & A (or should that be F & H), and a beautiful arrangement from Paul Riser.

Brenda & Albert – Talking About Loving You 1974
Brenda & Albert – This Has Happened Before 1974

Friday, May 11, 2007

The freshness still sealed within

A few weeks had passed since my last crate digging outing. In fact recent trips had been restricted to a simple trawl of the local charity shops and ‘crate digging’ could be considered a rather grand term for such jaunts. The itch needed to be scratched last weekend with something a bit more serious. The trouble is there are limited options in my neck of the woods. I live in quite a large city by UK standards so you would think there would be some choice, but it goes to show that the physical pursuit of vinyl – as opposed to the e-pursuit – is getting more and more difficult. My feeling, from tales told in the blogosphere, is that there are still plenty more options in the USA.

Anyway, hereabouts there are only four outlets I can think of dedicated to the noble art of selling second hand vinyl. One of these has by far the most stock, but I have visited it a few times in the past and always been disappointed. I stride towards the shop full of enthusiasm but, somehow, instead of feeling that rush of anticipation as I walk over its threshold, I’m always overcome with a feeling of indifference. Why? Any number of reasons could, and do, apply I think. The sheer volume of records is initially daunting. There is a predominance of albums, and I am currently enjoying a renewed and extended romance with the 45. I know these guys have been in business for a long time, so presumably they know their stuff and bargains will be few and far between. A lot of the stock, especially the 45s, is sorted in alphabetical order but not by genre. They are also crammed tightly into their boxes so making quick riffling difficult, and believe me quick riffling is preferable as there is a lot of dross to cut through. During previous visits soul and funk as a genre seem to have been almost completely absent.

OK, enough reasons. So what of my latest visit? This post can’t be all bad news and general grumpiness you’re thinking? Well, I experienced the familiar ennui as I walked in. I decided to head straight to the back of the shop. It’s almost a separate room and tends to be where the more expensive and individually priced stock is, but I figured it’s also where any soul and funk might be. Ennui was replaced by hope as I found that a dedicated section of soul and funk had been set up – no 45s, all albums, but never mind. There were at least six boxes so eager now I dived in. Initially hope retreated – all were priced at £5 and everything appeared to be commonplace or albums I already had, and multiple copies of lots of items. Then halfway through the third box I pulled out a copy of The Ohio Players 1976 album “Contradiction”. Not rare I know, but I used to love that album. I never had my own copy but had taped it off a friend’s copy all those years ago and the tape has been well played down the years. But the really magical thing about this plum I had just pulled out was that it was still sealed. I ran through the rest of the boxes but didn’t find anything else that justified the asking price (although I did find another still sealed copy of “Contradiction”). I handed over my £5 and left happy and with a spring in my step clutching my still sealed Ohio Players.

On getting home I then agonized over whether or not to remove the cellophane. I carefully slit one side so I could get the record out – I’m not completely mad I do actually like to play my records as well as look at them! But then the question - do I go further and remove all the cellophane? The Ohio Players were of course famous for their mmm…‘hot’ album covers, which were all gatefold. This one was no exception, so in the end the agonizing didn’t last too long, the cellophane had to come off! And there it was, the sleeve and record as fresh as the day it was sealed in cellophane some 31 years ago (assuming it’s a first press of course, and that’s what I’m happy to believe).

The music in the grooves still sounds fresh too. Here are two tracks from that record, beautifully pop and click free, recorded from only it’s second ever play.

Ohio Players – My Life 1976
Ohio Players – Far East Mississippi 1976

Opening a still sealed record after 31 years is a bit like entering a time warp. As a bonus here’s a link back to my post that featured an Ohio Players track from 39 years ago, the sublime “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow”. There you will find that the mp3 is available again for your listening pleasure.

It just so happens that “Contradiction”, teamed with “Honey” is released on a digitally remastered CD on 4th June. Go get it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cover Me

Until recently, with a few exceptions, I had not really been a fan of cover versions. My default position has been, almost invariably, original is best. Perhaps it was just the cover versions I had been exposed to weren’t that great. A lot in the rock genre just seem to me to be unimaginative, too close to the original, and just plain derivative. In the soul world when an artist performs a cover version, especially of a well known pop song, too often I feel somehow short changed. It seems some songs don’t suit a soul treatment and both the song and the singer’s delivery end up diluted.

Of course there is the question of what constitutes a cover version? Plenty of artists perform songs written by somebody else.
Down the line a song may well have been recorded by ‘the original artist’ but gone unnoticed. Each of us have probably listened to many cover versions not realising they are, as we are unfamiliar with the original. So in that case could it then be said that, from the listener’s point of view, the cover version could be seen as the original version and, if subsequently heard, the original version could be regarded as the cover version?!
Then there is the jazz world to consider. Jazz is full of artists interpreting and reinterpreting established tunes, but I never think of those as cover versions.
In reggae, especially roots reggae, there were many variations on a common dub or rhythm track and they were actually called "versions".
Somehow, though, to my mind a cover version has to be a vocal for starters. So for me perhaps, in an accepted sense, a cover version could generally be regarded as a vocal recording of a song that is already established in the general public consciousness – i.e. it has previously been a hit, widely played, or an entry in the “Great American Songbook”, that sort of thing. But there again if the song is generally recognized as being part of the “Great American Songbook” (whatever that is exactly) it’s probably been recorded hundreds of times already. At some point perhaps it could be said that a song moves into open season and further recordings of it are no longer seen as a cover.

Confused by these ramblings? I am – completely!

Something has triggered this rambling though. Recently there seem to have been a lot of cover versions featured in the blogosphere (at least on the blogs I regularly visit). Alex at Moistworks recently posted no less than five versions of “Since I Fell For You”; somewhere (sorry whoever you are, I can’t remember where I heard this now) recently you could find Aretha’s great rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; and of course Oliver Wang has just released his SoulSides2 CD on which every track is a cover. What nearly all of these tracks have made me understand is that you should not dismiss a cover version, and I will not be so sniffy about them in the future.

Got The Fever recently featured some delicious tracks from Jeannie Bryson’s new album. A name I was not previously familiar with. One of the tracks was her take on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”. I loved that record when it first came out. I really like Jeannie’s version and it prompted me to dig out The Isley Brother’s 1974 album “Live It Up”. Amongst all the original Isleys material on that album was another great version of “Hello It’s Me”. Maybe some songs are so strong you cannot make a bad cover. (On their previous album, the classic “3+3”, they had also included two covers – the Doobie’s “Listen To The Music” which wasn’t great shakes, and Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” which was simply magnificent).

As well as the Isleys I’ve thrown in another track today for good measure – Elkie Brooks doing a Ned Doheny penned song “Learn To Love” (from her 1978 album “Shooting Star” – for the most part a gently soulful and funky affair, albeit Elkie’s voice can be an acquired taste at times). It has a similar laid back feel so fits well. Ned wrote it and probably recorded it but I have never heard it so Elkie’s performance to my ears is the original, although in reality it’s a cover. But then Ned’s recording, if it exists, is hardly well known so would Elkie’s version still be classed as a cover?

I’m confused again, I think I better go and lie down (and listen to these great tracks once more). Cover me – with a sheet!

The Isley Brothers – Hello It’s Me 1974
Elkie Brooks – Learn To Love 1978