Saturday, February 11, 2012

Music Reviews-Otis Redding, ZZ Top, The Velvetones

Otis Redding
That's how strong my love is
I generally reject the idea that anyone was the best at anything when it comes to art or music. For me, art is about communication and transcendence. If someone can draw you into their world and show you something that you like that's really all that matters. I don't have the interest or the talent to say anyone is the best. There are however some artists who do tempt me to say that they are the best and Otis Redding is one of them. If someone wrote that "Otis Redding is the best soul singer that ever existed" could anyone disagree with that? I mean if you're not Al Green, David Ruffin, Wilson Pickett or Marvin Gaye, could you?  And if you mention D'Angelo or Mayer Hawthorne I'm going to throw something heavy at your head. Seriously. You should duck.

Unfortunately Redding's life was tragically cut short in a 1967 airplane crash that also killed most of the Bar-Kays. So we never got to hear everything that he was capable of doing.  He was really just getting started. I don't listen to a lot of modern R&B. One reason I don't, besides a generalized distaste for pseudo-disco, excessive melisma, synths and drum machines, is that I just haven't heard many modern male singers that have the kind of power and control that was exemplified by classic soul singers and most particularly Otis Redding. He was nicknamed "The Big O". (He stood 6-4 though judging by how some women carried on at his concerts there may have been other reasons for that sobriquet)
Otis Redding was actually discovered when he was working as a a roadie for Johnny Jenkins. After a session he stuck around the studio to sing and directed Steve Cropper to play the piano. The song was These Arms of Mine. Various musicians were impressed, joined in and the rest as they say is history. You couldn't write a better Hollywood story than that. The funny thing is that Redding started out singing gospel and for a while was a Little Richard wannabe, even touring with Little Richard's band. Go figure.

Redding had a natural baritone voice that was quite well suited for countrified soul ballads of aching and loneliness. This dovetailed perfectly the needs of Stax Records and evidently quite a few sixties era music fans. Redding was also the hardest of the hard soul singers. He gave everything he had in every performance. The amount of energy he expended was truly frightening.  Some people then and now thought that Redding was guilty of "over-souling". Well maybe. He was after all a performer. But my take is that compared to his contemporaries and certainly compared to what passes for R&B today Redding was an essentially honest performer.

Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays
Redding wasn't just a passive recipient of whatever songs the record company deemed appropriate but was an active songwriter, producer, arranger, musician and bandleader. Although he playfully joked that "that little girl stole my song", he was the writer of Respect, which Aretha Franklin took to number 1 in 1967. Redding grew up singing gospel and was primarily influenced by Little Richard and Sam Cooke. The list of singers, songwriters and musicians he influenced is too long to start. Redding's death and MLK's murder a short time later would bring an end to the first incarnation of Stax records.

It's sad that Redding didn't live to do more. All we have is five short years of some of the most beautiful soul music that was ever created. Redding did tearjerking ballads, updated blues, dance music and even some of the funk that was starting to emerge. He had been to England and had his ears open to some of the new sounds coming from there. Who knows what he would have done in the seventies and beyond. But that's life. As Jimi Hendrix said,  "The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye, the story of love is hello, goodbye." 

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag  I've been loving you too long (Live at Monterey)
Pain in My Heart  Hard to Handle  Tramp (with Carla Thomas)   That's how strong my love is
For Your Precious Love  Shake  Sitting on The Dock of The Bay

ZZ TOP                                                                               
We bad. We Nationwide!!!
ZZ Top is a blues-rock trio that started in 1969. It's comprised of Billy Gibbons (guitar/vocals), Dusty Hill (bass/vocals) and Frank Beard (drums). The group has been through stylistic and sonic changes but has always kept at least one foot planted firmly in the blues. ZZ Top is just as well known today for copious facial hair, redneck shtick and cowboys from outer space stage attire as they are known for their music but this is a con. Gibbons is an extremely skilled blues-rock guitarist (listen to Sure got cold after the rain fell or the otherworldly gospel slide on I want to drive you home). His vocals, however, are best described as an acquired taste. Gibbons combines a deep and very thick Texas twang of mid century white American provenance (his natural speaking voice) with archaic black southern slang or other accents he picked up. This occasionally can come across as aural blackface.

The author Charles Shaar Murray once called ZZ Top the perfect band for "people who were crazy about blues but weren't crazy about black people playing them".  It's true ZZ Top has been far more financially successful than any black blues artist. But with few exceptions ZZ Top was diligent about giving proper (i.e. paid) credit to those who influenced them or whose music they covered. Gibbons always proudly speaks of being influenced by such musicians as BB King (who inspired the band's name), John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Buck Owens, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Jones and many others. Famously, Gibbons opened for Hendrix, who showed him a few licks and said that Gibbons would go far.

ZZ Top did not begin their career with cover tunes. Their first album consisted of technically original but dreadfully dull derivative boogie rock numbers lacking any rhythmic bounce. Their second album was better. It was their third album, Tres Hombres, which made them commercially viable and revealed that Hendrix was correct when he predicted Gibbons would be the next big thing. The standout song from Tres Hombres was La Grange (which was heavily influenced by both John Lee Hooker's Boogie Children and Slim Harpo's Shake Your Hips ) and told the story -one of many by Gibbons- of a trip to a house of ill repute. La Grange featured two guitar solos-the second of which was crammed full of pinch harmonics -those squealing noises that Gibbons used better than any guitarist not named Roy Buchanan or Eddie Van Halen.

The eighties saw ZZ Top reach new levels of fame/prosperity, when, inspired by such non-blues performers as Prince, Devo and Depeche Mode they released the Eliminator album. Eliminator featured drum machines, sequencers and synthesizers. It was dance music- ZZ Top style. It probably didn't impress people who had grown up listening to James Brown or P-Funk but it was a huge pop hit. Eliminator made ZZ Top MTV icons although their older blues/rock crowd initially didn't like it. Post-Eliminator the band repeated the synth sound to diminishing returns until the nineties. They started doing frequent "back to basics" albums that never quite recaptured the urgency of their early seventies sound. Unfortunately they also began recording much louder.

Gibbons may not be the world's best songwriter but frequently he writes a really good blues/rock song. The group couldn't have written songs like Woke up with Wood if they didn't have a (often ironic) sense of humor. ZZ Top never takes itself too seriously and neither should you. Enjoy and Get it On sounds like something Muddy Waters would have written only faster while Cheap Sunglasses is a fun piece which shows Dusty Hill was listening to funk. Avalon Hideaway combines George Jones-type vocals with inventive drumming. Sharp Dressed Man imagines Elmore James meets techno.
Enjoy and Get it On   Sharp Dressed Man  Legs  Avalon Hideaway
Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell   Cheap Sunglasses  Blue Jean Blues
I want to Drive You Home  Waiting on a Bus/Jesus just left Chicago
I Thank You (cover of Sam and Dave song)   I Thank You (Original Sam and Dave version) I'm Bad I'm Nationwide

The Velvetones
I think many people can relate to the lyrics of Glory of Love. The beautiful thing about well written songs is that they can touch something in everyone if you listen. The Velvetones didn't write this song but I think their version is the definitive one. The rap that they did in the middle of the song is bittersweet and funny at the same time. My brother described it as a love letter as written by Sam Kinison. I don't know much about this group or have any of their 45's or albums (if they did any). But I do have several doo-wop collections that feature this song. It was also on the Casino film soundtrack. Melody of Love is also a sweet little number that is bluesy and very positive. Again, who can't relate to Melody of Love?  It's just a truly beautiful song. I thought with Valentine's Day approaching it would be a nice way to end this post with two songs that speak to the emotions that love brings.
Glory of Love    Melody of Love
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