Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music Reviews-Bo Diddley, Alicia Svigals, 100 Proof(Aged in Soul), Sweet Honey In The Rock

Bo Diddley
Along with fellow Chess Records label mate Chuck Berry, and men like Ike Turner, Louis Jordan, Little Richard and Fats Domino, Bo Diddley could (and often did) make a claim to be a Founding Father of Rock-n-Roll. His music was slightly different than Chuck Berry's. Both men were influenced by previous jazz, blues and R&B musicians but whereas Chuck Berry added a little more country and jump blues to his music, Bo Diddley's works, much like John Lee Hooker's, provided an obvious link back to Africa through his more open use of clave. I understand clave as a 3-2 call and response pattern. Clave is of course found all over the music of the African Diaspora from people as seemingly disparate as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Mongo Santamaria, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland, Duke Ellington and many others but in the US is most closely associated with music from the Caribbean: especially Afro-Cuban compositions. The simplified popular version of clave often can be expressed by the "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" rhythm but it can get much more complicated than that. I am neither a musician nor a musicologist so I'll just stop there and just say clave is an important element of African and Diasporic music.

Diddley played up this seemingly exotic sound by having a maracas player (Jerome Green) take a prominent role both in studio and on stage. Many Bo Diddley songs didn't change chords. This was similar to people like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. But Diddley was playing faster than they were with more "drive" for lack of a better word. He tended to use straight eighth rhythms instead of triplets. He once claimed he couldn't really play blues.
As with older blues players it could occasionally be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Diddley's music to detect where the "one" was. This could be very rhythmically intoxicating. Bo Diddley was extremely aware of his own skills and originality. He often verbally fenced with interviewers determined to get him to list his influences. He always said that he got his own sound and thought other musicians should as well.
Like James Brown, Bo Diddley brought an intensely rhythmic drive to his music, one which was no doubt influenced by his church experiences and early training on drums. His music always had a lot of bounce and syncopation. He played the guitar like a drum. This approach may have been because of extremely large hands and fingers that made certain techniques easier and others more difficult. He started out playing classical violin and wasn't bad at it. Check out "The Clock Strikes Twelve". Bo Diddley wasn't crazy about a lot of cymbals, because he thought they often clashed with what he was playing on guitar. He did like tom-toms and maracas. A lot of his music has very prominent tom-tom sounds. I like this as I think the tom-tom is often overlooked in modern music. For my money there's nothing like the deep resonance of a tom-tom drum.
Bo Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb Mississippi but grew up and learned to play music in Chicago. His stage name was African in origin and was said both to refer to nothing and the one string wall guitar (diddley bo) that was also African in origin and on which many future blues stars first learned to perform on. Bo Diddley had a different vocal style than Chuck Berry as well. Whereas Chuck Berry occasionally fancied himself something of a crooner in the Charles Brown or Perry Como style, Diddley's deeper voice and music were a little bit rougher and occasionally a bit more menacing. It wasn't every man who could convincingly sing of having walked 47 miles of barbed wire, used a cobra snake for a necktie, lived in a brand new house on the roadside that was made from rattlesnake hide with a brand new chimney made out of human skulls. But Bo Diddley could. His music had a large sense of humor to go along with the often surreal lyrics such as "You should have have heard what I just seen". He wrote the song "Love is Strange" which became a hit for Mickey and Sylvia.
Diddley was also a forerunner of rap. Many of his songs were self-referential. On stage he was the macho braggart with the heart of gold or he put it "..a young woman's wish and an old woman's dream.." Although Bo Diddley's songs often included outlandish mannish boasting (check out his rewrite of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Koochie Man" as "I'm a Man" which was a pretty revolutionary song for a Black man to be singing in 1950s America), he was an equal opportunity employer and often had women lead guitarists. That was very unusual for the times. It's actually The Duchess playing lead on "Aztec". "Aztec" sounds like a missing cut from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. Bo Diddley was a big sartorial and musical influence on later guitarists-most obviously Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Check out Bo Diddley's hats and jackets and then look at Jimi or SRV. Bo Diddley was one of the first guitarists to consciously seek out and use such "bad" sounds as pick scratches, fret noise, harmonics, distortion, and feedback squeals. This was most apparent in "Please Mr. Engineer" and "Roadrunner".

Diddley's techniques would lay the groundwork for hard rock and heavy metal later on. He also was a big fan of tremolo and vibrato. There may be a few recordings floating around with him using a wah-wah pedal though it could be judicious use of tone controls. Bo Diddley designed, customized and occasionally built his own amps and guitars. He was most closely associated with the Gretsch Guitar company, who built him odd custom instruments of unusual shapes, colors and sizes-some were even fur lined. Billy Gibbons was the presenter for Bo Diddley's induction into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. Gibbons credited Diddley not only as a primal influence but also with turning him on to fur covered guitars. Go figure.
Bo Diddley's music prioritized rhythm over melody. Unfortunately for him, American law did not (does not??) recognize rhythm as something which can be copyrighted. So he had no recourse when other people started using rhythms he had popularized. Things went from bad to worse when he was cheated out of the royalties from songs that he did write. In other desperate situations he signed away certain publishing rights. And trying to build a music career as a black man in segregated America was no one's idea of an easy task. These experiences apparently left him rather bitter as over the years he rarely failed to bring this up in interviews. Live and learn I guess. Many original rock-n-roll musicians, especially the black ones, were treated poorly and ripped off by record company execs, publishers, promoters and agents. He never had many chart hits but his music was influential both on his peers and musicians who would come afterwards. Early on, The Rolling Stones were a virtual Bo Diddley cover band. The Who's "Magic Bus" is a Bo Diddley vamp. In the seventies Shirley had a disco hit with "Shame, Shame, Shame" which was also a take on a Bo Diddley riff. In the 70s, he updated his music to include nods to current funk and rock which had replaced original rock-n-roll as popular music. In his final decades he made a semi-respectable living on the old time rock-n-roll circuit with occasional flashes of interest that came from opening tours for others or the commercial he did with Bo Jackson.

Bo Diddley, the original sharp dressed man, is gone now but his music will last forever. If you're not hip to him well you ought to be. As he said "You've got your radio turned down too low. Turn it up!!!"

Who Do You Love  Bo Diddley   Pretty Thing  I'm a Man  Mona   500% More Man   Rock-n-Roll  Hong Kong Mississippi
Say Man  Bo's a Lumberjack  Cops and Robbers  The Clock Strikes Twelve
Before You Accuse Me   Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry together live No More Loving
Please Mr. Engineer  Aztec    I don't like you   Shut Up Woman   Roadrunner
Bo Diddley live at Shindig with The Duchess You can't judge a book by looking at the cover Crackin up

Alicia Svigals
Klezmer music is Jewish mostly secular folk and dance music that primarily hails from Eastern Europe, especially what is now Poland, Romania, Moldova and The Ukraine. It is pretty lively stuff that also has a fair amount of Roma, Greek and Turkish influences. Once it got to the US it also underwent minor cross cultural sharing with jazz and blues. They're long gone now but there used to be a number of African-American blues players who threw in klezmer licks or Yiddish vocals in their music as well as a number of klezmer players who picked up some pop or blues sounds. Obviously times change and both the Holocaust and the process of modernization and assimilation drastically reduced the number of klezmer musicians in the post WW2 US.

However in the past few decades there has been something of a modest klezmer revival as people gain interest in the music of their forebears. One of the musicians leading the charge in this is Alicia Svigals, who also happens to be one of the finest violinists I've ever heard. She was a founding member of the klezmer revivalist group The Klezmatics and also has enjoyed a vibrant solo career. She's also performed with (and tutored) Itzhak Perlman. Svigals is probably the best klezmer violinist performing today and has eagerly shared her knowledge with many other students of the violin or fidl. In an interesting echo of past cross-fertilizations, adventurous jazz musicians like Don Cherry have worked in klezmer styles while some klezmer musicians have included jazz or other world music in what they're doing.

Her solo album Fidl is probably the best introduction to klezmer music and her very individualistic style. Like a lot of the best musicians who straddle the gulf between old styles and new, she knows all of the traditionalist rules and styles and also knows when to break them. This music is an acquired taste of course but if you are open to hearing something different, klezmer music may hit the spot.

Gasn Nign Manhattan Concert Bessarabian Medley Romanian Fantasy Kallarash

100 Proof(Aged in Soul)
Motown owner, CEO and President Berry Gordy was notoriously tight with control and money. This became a problem for his three top songwriters and producers, Lamont Dozier, and brothers Brian and Edward Holland, who were famous, even legendary, as the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. It became so much of an issue that once ultimatums had been issued, Gordy showed the team the door and told them that they were free to do their own thing (though not free to use their own names as Gordy tied that up in legal disputes). Peeved the trio did just that and started the record labels Hot Wax Records and Invictus Records. Many bands that signed to these labels had a recognizably "Motown" sound which made sense considering who was running the label. Most of the bands were quite funky as that what was in at the time. There were, despite Gordy's best attempts, some musicians who worked at both Motown and Hot Wax/Invictus. I suppose I'll be discussing more musicians from this period later but one group which I always enjoyed was 100 Proof (Aged in Soul). I don't know much about them. I think all the original members are dead and gone. I'm sure I must have heard them growing up but my first "modern" taste of them came on an Invictus compilation release which featured tracks from people like Parliament, Freda Payne, Honey Cone and several other heavy hitters.

100 Proof (Aged in Soul) was initially made up of Eddie Holiday, Steve Mancha, and Joe Stubbs (brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs and former member of The Falcons and The Contours).

I really like the song "Everything Good is Bad". I don't think a lot of people really sing like that any more. The vocals are soulful, masculine and pleading without falling into either ridiculous melismas or wimpish whines which seem to make up a lot of what passes for modern R&B. I also like how the bass drops out. This reminds me of dub/reggae. Music like this was really updated modernized blues. Much of the lyrics are concerned with unrequited love, passionate love, adultery and hard times, just like many classic blues songs.

Everything good is bad    Don't you wake me  Somebody's been sleeping in my bed  I don't care if I never get over you If I could see the light in the window 90 day freeze
Nothing sweeter than love

Sweet Honey in The Rock
At this point Sweet Honey in the Rock is as much an institution as a musical group. In its origin it was founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights activist (check out her work in "Wade in the Water") who always let her music show which side she was on. It's primarily, though not exclusively, an acapella group. When they do use instrumentation it's usually minimal. Reagon retired from the group a few years back which is a shame but that's life, you know. Anyway in my opinion they are among the best living performers of African-American spirituals (and gospel as well) and old pre-blues folk music. Obviously there's also some doo-wop and scat singing in their sound as well. Basically they draw upon the entire history of African American vocal traditions, both secular and profane. At a time where too many women of all colors seek attention for not wearing many clothes and speaking in degraded language, Sweet Honey in The Rock has upheld a musical and fashion standard that does not treat women as if their only value is sexual.

Their songs run the gamut of various personal issues of course but they are best known for reinterpretations of traditional tunes or original music which is concerned with struggling for justice in a variety of contexts, gender, racial, environmental, economic, etc. Sometimes when people who have strong political beliefs make music, the music suffers. Sweet Honey in the Rock is the exception to that rule. Sometimes I think that the most beautiful and most versatile instrument is the human voice. This group may make you think so as well. "When I Rise" is really incredible work.

When I Rise  Doing Things Together Ballad of Harry Moore Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round Testimony More than a paycheck Ella's Song

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