Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Put Some Neckbones On My Plate

I know I've been remiss in posting. Life's gotten in the way. In a good way! But all this time I have been picking up books and recordings, reading and listening, sometimes with big gaps between bouts of same and then, sorta splurging (I still remember being BROKE AS SHIZ, living in D.C. at one point so a splurge for me means - spending $24 in one sitting on Amazon purchases -- or culling the collection and dragging it up to Princeton Record Exchange or down to Positively Records and combing their bins for surprises. So I'm not going to try and make up for lost time here but address what's sitting right in front of me.

I do regularly ignore things that generate media buzz and wait for the buzz to die off before possibly indulging. In 2011 there was considerable ballyhooing of Preston Lauterbach's "The Chitlin' Circuit And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll" book...and it's been on my radar ever since -- particularly because of the reference to Little Richard's days as a female impersonator. So this Summer I finally took the plunge and, was entirely engrossed.

I do have a love of "secret histories" and this one actually investigates multiple cultural phenomena and narrative arcs that even a music freak like me (tho admittedly a generalist and not a blues or R&B specialist) hadn't the foggiest notion of: the contemporary Black blues circuit of rodeo arenas and civic centers where day-long, multi-artist bills performing, um, "saucy" numbers by the truck load sustaining artists like Marvin Sease, Bobby Rush etc.; quasi-mythic figures like "Jody," purportedly a figure out of Yoruban folk-lore of enormous sexual appetite, a love for forbidden practices (specifically oral pleasure given to women) and a complete lack of discrimination when it comes to partners (and suddenly songs like Jean Knight's "Don't Talk About Jody" or anamalous references to Jody in the midst of James Brown songs, make sense). And of course there's the basic narrative arc of the book - how the onslaught of the Depression devastated the big swing bands' business model and forced performers and promoters to favor smaller bands touring smaller towns, playing to predominantly Black audiences as opposed to what the likes of Duke Ellington experienced in his glory days - extended residencies at a venue like the Cotton Club in Harlem playing to a wealthy, white elite.

To a degree the book's title is a misnomer -- or can be readily misinterpreted. Most honkies (my hand's up) do view rock 'n' roll being the music of Elvis, Beatles and the Rolling Stones and their myriad descendents. Whereas rock 'n' roll began as an especially salacious sub-genre of R&B (a term coined by Jerry Wexler when he was at Billboard), the term referring to alternating movements occurring during a righteous bout of coitus. And this book pretty much ends up with the launching of James Brown's career and the creative and commercial ascendance of Hi Records - both of these being very logical end products of local/regional music scenes banked by money coming from somewhat questionable sources, being quasi-laundered and simultaneously producing considerable profit for the investors -- these scenes/systems having arisen in the 1930's.

As a fan of the New Orleans music scene and having some passing knowledge of clubs like the Dew Drop Inn and the performers New Orleans supplied to the Chitlin' Circuit, it's a great gift to see the context that functioned with in, and to realize that it was in many ways typical of the scenes in other Southern towns like Macon, Indianapolis, etc.

Part of this story, of course is the entrepeneurs who owned the clubs, booked and promoted artists and ran the record labels who were a notably incestuous lot with many folks wearing many hats and deriving profit from each and every one they wore, at the artists' expense. And yet, these folks did set up, invest in and maintain the whole system (with lots of hidden expenses like bribes to the [typically white] civil authorities to allow these amusements to exist). And many of the artists achieved a degree of wealth -- at least when they were actively performing -- far surpassing anything most of them would have achieved otherwise. And things like records -- were viewed mainly as a calling card that allowed the artist to play bigger venues, demand bigger advances and so on.

Don Robey was the music kingpin of Houston, TX and his connections ran through much of the Southwest being especially influential from Texas up to Memphis and down to New Orleans. And he started his own label, Peacock, then "acquired" the nascent Duke label for whom a lot of artists discussed in "The Chitlin' Circuit..." recorded. Last year's "I Pity The Fool: The Duke Records Story" compiles 60 tracks from that label's output and is a great accompaniment/illustration of said tome: early sides by Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Junior Parker (note that "Take Me To The Water" starts with Al Green's spoken dedication to same), Otis Rush (!!) and Johnny Ace - who's accidental death (while drunkenly playing Russian roulette backstage between sets - with Russian roulette being a REGULAR part of his stage show), helped springboard his "Pledging My Love" to the top of both race charts AND Pop charts, the Black foot in the door to record buying white audiences for R&B.

I will admit that while the 60 tracks here (purchased for about $5 and postage from Amazon, new) makes for good casual listening that no one track really jumped out at me and made me want to look further into that particular artist. No duff cuts but, it's a style and a mood and if you're hungry for that -- which I often am -- this is a sound and inexpensive investment.

"Let The Good Times Roll: The Aladdin Story" (also about $5 = shipping) is a 50 track compilation of releases from this L.A. based label that functioned from the mid-40's through the 1950's. While I'm sure afficionados know thia all too well, it's been fascinating to me to note how many R&B labels were based in L.A. (also the immediate vicinity of Newark, NJ): Aladdin, Specialty, Imperial, Dial). Their big names were New Orleans' Shirley & Lee best know for the title track of this compilation and The vocal group, The Five Keys. And again, this is a great one to put on for casual listening when you're looking for a substantial fix of earthy R&B but not a lot of tracks will suddenly draw you in and grab your especial attention. Another solid investment.

BONUS review - I was just feeling blue, and recalled a review in New Orleans' Offbeat magazine of vintage Cajun/rockabilly hybridizations - "Boppin By The Bayou" and ordered it (I realize how shallow that is...sigh...but it IS cheaper than a therapist!) When it arrived I noted a lot of promising names "Al Ferrier, Nathan Abshire & The Pine Grove Boys, Jay Chevalier & The Long Shots etc., but after multiple listens I was disappointed. Not that this wasn't great, lively, gritty rockabilly but outside of one track (name escapes me right now), there was little or no noticeable Cajun influence. What there was, sounded cool as hell though and someday I'll go looking for more. So


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