Listen to this track by Brummie blue-eyed soul and rock quartet The Spencer Davis Group. It’s “I’m A Man”, their 1967 hit single as taken from the self-same album I’m A Man. This would be the group’s last hit single in their original incarnation that featured Stevie Winwood on vocals and organ before he left to join Traffic later in the year.
Like many soul singers, Winwood started his musical journey in part while involved with the Church, although this time it was the C of E and decidedly not a sultry Baptist chapel somewhere in the American South. Nevertheless, access to a bona fide church organ had to be important to his trajectory. He had something that a lot of British musicians didn’t have at the time besides. Winwood didn’t just pick up his trade simply by listening to blues and soul records. The time he spent playing in pick-up bands to back up American bluesman like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker as they toured Britain was also an important part of his musical apprenticeship. This gained him first-hand exposure and training to achieve the real sound of the blues and get straight to the heart of soul music. It also introduced him to how all-consuming it can become to pursue a musician’s life.
That’s what this song is all about; a love song to the music itself and to the state of being in a band, despite the dangers of losing oneself while being entangled in it all. It’s a snapshot of a mind that is both juvenile and ambitious all at once, which is part of why it became a rock standard. But, it goes beyond that, too.
Listen to this track by former TV band turned actual real life band featured in their own movie, The Monkees. It’s “Porpoise Song”, a 1968 single also to be heard on the soundtrack to the movie Head. The film was directed by The Monkees TV series creator and director Bob Rafaelson who would go on to direct many films into the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, who in turn would serve as a screeenwriter on Head. The Monkees TV producer Bert Schneider would also produce the feature. The gang was all here.
In addition to the filmmaking aspect of the project, The Monkees had other allies on this tune, with whom they had a healthy and fruitful relationship; Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had written a number of other songs in their catalogue, including a hit song in “Pleasant Valley Sunday“. That was during the era in which the band were beamed into living rooms all over the nation. Since that period, they’d cut loose the bonds of their former personas as lovable TV goofs. They had established their own path as a real band without the fuel of a hit TV show to propel them onto the charts.
And yet, with “Porpoise Song” and with Head, that former life was still referenced, although in a more satirical light — or maybe as a way to decompress from it and make their escape once and for all. The results were, perhaps, not as they’d thought. Continue reading
Listen to this track by boundary-pushing jazz trumpeter and genre-defying sonic visionary Miles Davis. It’s “Shhh/Peaceful”, the first track and indeed whole of side-A on his 1969 landmark release In A Silent Way.
The album gathered some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day into one space, with the music recorded during a single session on February 18, 1969, after almost a year on Davis’ part of working up ideas, and experimenting with new textures and instrumentation. Joining jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea, were European jazz players including bassist Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul on organ, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin.
Besides Davis’ creative vision supported by producer and engineer Teo Macero, perhaps it was this cross-cultural exchange that helped to move this project into another dimension. Likely too it was the addition of electric instruments that made this record the harbinger of Davis’ foray into what would become known as jazz fusion, wherein he would employ electric wattage to his instrumental excursions that paid no mind to traditional melodic frameworks, making critics wonder if Miles Davis was even interested in jazz any longer.
But, when it came to the critics, this piece of music, and In A Silent Way in general, much of it stemmed from a significant paradigm shift when it came to how jazz was understood, and that which was very common in the recording of rock music at the time; studio trickery undertaken after the musicians went home. Continue reading
The cover version, as I’ve said so many times, should bring something new to the listener that they can’t get from the original. It’s a good general rule. There are perfunctory cover versions anyway, of course. And there are ones that you think couldn’t possibly work, and yet they do and sometimes gloriously so!
But, what of the cover version that seems to have been inevitable? What of the ones that appeared to have been waiting for the artist to take it in their arms and give it some sweet musical lovin’? I’m not talking about predictability here. No. I’m talking about that “of course!” factor; of course that artist recorded that song. It was made for them, even if they didn’t write it, or record it first!
Well, here are ten of those; songs that silently demanded that they be covered by the given artist, and that the artist framed the song in such a way as to bring out personality traits in it that weren’t obvious before, true to their own personalities and previous works. Some were big hits. Some were only minor entries into the charts. Some were little-known live versions or bonus tracks. But beside all those details, with each one comes the feeling to a listener that a sense of resolution has been revealed, that because each of these cover versions exist, finally the cosmic tumblers have fallen into place. Proceed!
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Joni Mitchell stands in a class by herself.
She is too often irritatingly referred to as a sort of “female Bob Dylan”, which still makes my hackles rise and keeps my gag reflex in good working order. Nothing against Bob, of course. But, the two artists are not to be compared, least of all while using the tag of “female” as a modifier, and ultimately as a way to reduce her significance on the basis of gender. I will say no more about it (maybe).
Hailing from the Canadian prairies, Mitchell took her art to the folk scenes of Calgary, Toronto, Detroit, New York, and eventually to La-La land and the Laurel Canyon scene starting in the 1960s and on through the 1970s. She started off with a girl-with-guitar hippie-chick image, where she has often stayed in the minds of the uninitiated. But, Mitchell’s work is expansive and fearless well beyond labels or eras, even from her earliest period. Lately, she’s made the headlines because of her ill-health, and also due to her rather cantankerous attitudes having to do with the music industry as well as toward her contemporaries.
But, it is her art that remains to be her strongest and most vital voice, sometimes with that cantankerous outlook built in, sometimes not. And as such, I hereby present ten tracks of Joni, ten musical beacons in a galaxy of bright points that measure her unique and far-reaching artistic journey. Some are hits, while others are simply examples of her fearlessness in an industry in which she thrived, and against which struggled in equal measure.
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Continue reading
Listen to this track by Bentonia, Mississippi guitarist, pianist, and all-around legendary bluesman Skip James. It’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, a sepia-toned treasure from the age of delta country blues that would be featured on James’ 1966 album Today!
The song would be sourced from his repertoire that appeared many years before in 1931 with his initial recordings on the Paramount label. During that era, Skip James’ career as a full-time musician and songwriter would be scuppered by the Great Depression. When most of your audience doesn’t have a job, it’s hard for them to buy records. So, after recording his Paramount sides, he slipped back into obscurity. This economic reality had impact on many, including Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, among others.
But, like those two other musicians, Skip James would enjoy a second wind in the 1960s, thanks to a bona fide hero’s quest to find the grail of true American culture. Continue reading