Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Soul: Hang On In There Baby — Johnny Bristol (1974)

Barry White was a big, big man but, in 1974, there still wasn't enough of him to go around. Thank goodness for Johnny Bristol, who helped to meet the era's insatiable demand for satin-upholstered R&B makeout music with Hang On In There Baby, a track so seductive, some of you dear readers likely exist because of it.

Mind you, Bristol was no opportunistic coat-tail rider. He spent most of the previous decade as a singer, songwriter and producer for Motown Records where he worked with many of the label's biggest names and did so quite stealthily due to the large shadows cast by Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Nevertheless, Marvin and Tammy's Ain't No Mountain High Enough and Your Precious Love? Bristol co-productions. Diana Ross & The Supremes Someday We'll Be Together? A Bristol production and co-write, and that's even him singing response to Ross's lead. Edwin Starr, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Jr. Walker & The All-Stars? They all benefitted from Bristol's wide-ranging talents at one time or another.

Bristol left Motown in 1973 and, after a brief stint as Columbia's in-house producer (where he helmed Boz Scaggs's Slow Dancer LP), he moved to MGM to launch his solo career with a song he wrote and produced just for himself, Hang On In There Baby.

"When I heard the final thing, I flipped," recalled Bristol of the recording. "You see, after I'd finished putting down the vocal, . . . we spent a lot time sweetening the track, getting the strings and the girl chorus integrated into the sensuous feeling I wanted . . . Sometimes, you can tell a new recording's a hit. With Hang On In There Baby, I could taste it."

The song is constructed using the tried-and-true Barry White/Love Unlimited Orchestra formula: A gentle intro of high hat, liquid bass, electric piano and whispered sweet nothings; cue wah-wah guitar, harp and finally the whoosh of the full orchestra as Bristol — in his best deep, lurrrverman voice — promises his lady friend to lead her to "that sweet moment of surrender" and "to give you more than you ever dreamed possible." (Sadly, you know it's just a matter of time until the Viagra folks co-opt this tune). In a year when White classics Love's Theme, Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe and You're The First, The Last, My Everything were all huge hits, no wonder Hang On In There Baby also found millions of receptive ears and promptly scaled pop's top-10, just as Bristol thought it would. Alas, nothing else he recorded under his own name would enjoy similar success, although he remained active into the mid-1990s.

Bristol died in 2004 of natural causes. He was 65

Hang On In There Baby (link expired)

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the death of soul singer Al Wilson, who succumbed to kidney failure last week at age 68. Like Bristol, Wilson also enjoyed his biggest-ever hit in 1974 with Show and Tell. That same year, Bristol produced some tracks for Wilson, including the much-loved La La Peace Song.

Here's Wilson performing Show and Tell on Soul Train from 1974:

Buy Johnny Bristol here

Buy Al Wilson here

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Back Seat of My Car — Percy 'Thrills' Thrillington (1971)

In all the top people's diaries, November 8th is a red letter day — Paul and Linda McCartney are holding a ball to celebrate their next album. Meanwhile, McCartney Productions has apparently made a signing. Percy Thrillington (that's for real), an Irish bandleader, is the lucky man. His first release is likely to be an instrumental version of Ram.

— Rolling Stone, Nov. 11, 1971

Well, this particular Rolling Stone writer got some of it right. Percy Thrillington's first release was, indeed, an instrumental version of Paul McCartney's second solo album but, as we now know, the rest of the story is just a mischievous Macca ruse. (That's for real. Really.)

Truth is stranger than fiction in this instance. Just two weeks after the May 28, 1971, release of Ram, McCartney invited arranger Richard Hewson to Abbey Road studios to craft a mostly instrumental version of the album. (Further proof ex-Beatles could do whatever they damn well pleased in 1971.)

McCartney wouldn't play or sing during these sessions, only produce. He'd also hand-pick the pop combo whose basic tracks would be orchestrally embellished; these musicians included bassist Herbie Flowers (Lou Reed), drummer Clem Cattini (The Tornadoes) and the Mike Sammes Singers (whose scatting was wrongly credited to The Swingle Singers for many years). Because Ram was new in shops, most of these musicians hadn't heard McCartney's latest when they recorded its instrumental cousin in a whirlwind, three-day session. The instrumental Ram was mixed the following day, and Paul and Linda started to formulate a back story for their fictitious new signing, Percy 'Thrills' Thrillington, a socialite bandleader from Ireland ...

As the Rolling Stone item suggested, there were immediate plans to release the instrumental Ram under the Thrillington pseudonym but ultimately the project was put on the backburner as the McCartneys launched Wings with the Wild Life album that December. Percy's career appeared over before it even began; he'd surely be upset if he, you know, existed.

Then out of the blue, in April 1977, the six-year-old Thrillington project finally saw the light of day on EMI's Regal Zonophone imprint. McCartney was mentioned as a friend of Percy's in the liner notes (penned by Macca under yet another pseudonyn Clint Harrigan) but otherwise there was no suggestion the former Beatle was involved in the record. And without his cachet, Thrillington went unnoticed and quietly slipped into obscurity, where it continues to reside despite being briefly reissued on CD in 1995 and 2004.

Shame, that. Ram, after all, ranks among McCartney's finest solo works and its songs are strong enough to withstand Thrillington's radical reinvention. Certainly, the complex structures of Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey and Back Seat of My Car (posted below) welcome the orchestral treatments, while slighter Ram tracks such as Ram On and Monkberry Moon Delight are utterly transformed by their new jazz-swing arrangements. As such, Thrillington is neither an act of artistic folly nor mere Beatle-related curio; it's a charming album in its own right, albeit in an easy-listening vein. And here's the good news: It has been made available once again, this time on iTunes. If enough people rediscover it, maybe Percy will come out of retirement to tackle Back to the Egg.

Back Seat of My Car (link expired)

A final bit of trivia about Thrillington's version of Back Seat: Following the track's piano coda, you can hear water dripping. That's the sound of Abbey Road's leaky toilets, carefully recorded by McCartney and engineer Alan Parsons.

Buy it on iTunes or buy it here

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Me You I'm Your — Jim Noir (2006)

It's the mark of a great song when you can vividly remember where you were, and what you were doing, the first time you heard it.

For me, Jim Noir's Key of C was one of those songs. In January 2006, I was saving the rainforests and listening to BBC6 when this fizzy pop confection stopped me in my tracks. (On second thought, maybe I was just tidying the house and not saving the rainforests — honest mistake — but I swear the rest of the story is accurate.) I rushed out to buy the Manchester one-man-band's freshly minted debut Tower of Love and the deal was sealed. I was a fan.

I had no choice, really. I have a soft spot for the Beach Boys circa 1966-71, for eccentric English psychedelia, for bubbly laptop pop — and Mr. Noir (Alan Roberts to his ma and pa) tickles all of these pleasure centres. He has a whispery, high-pitched voice similar to Robert Wyatt's; he multi-tracks this voice to create harmonies that'd make Brian Wilson shed a tear; and his songs are all perfectly formed pop that nevertheless operates by its own unconventional rules. At Chez Bongo Jazz, Tower of Love was on heavy rotation throughout 2006 and '07.

The album included the forementioned Key of C ...

... but also today's post, I Me You I'm Your, a song that's so damn catchy and pleasing to the ear (with its twinkling synths, Macca bass, church organ, ba-ba-ba refrains) that you might not immediately realize the slight, oft-repeated lyric is pretty much nonsense.

I Me You I'm Your (link expired)

I'm glad to report Noir's self-titled second album, which hit stores earlier this month, avoids the sophomore jinx and builds upon Tower of Love's many strengths. If you like today's posts, I recommend Tower of Love and the new disc with utmost confidence.

Buy Jim Noir music here

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Soul: Cantaloupe Island — El Chicano (1970)

The mighty Los Lobos weren't feigning modesty when they named their 1993 compilation Just Another Band from East L.A. The group knew they were following in some formidable footsteps, including those belonging to El Chicano, a Mexican-American outfit responsible for a series of stunningly eclectic, early-'70s albums. Jazz, rock, blues, pop, soul, samba, the kitchen sink, you name it — there was room for all of it in the El Chicano sound and, as you'll hear in today's post, they had the chops to pull it off.

El Chicano chose to kick off their 1970 debut, Viva Tirado (pictured right), with Cantaloupe Island, a cover of Herbie Hancock's 1964 jazz classic. There's amazing Hammond playing from Bobby Espinosa (riffing on the song's central theme), some fluid Wes Montgomery-styled lead guitar from Mickey Lespron and the rhythm section work could have been the inspiration for Steely Dan's 1972 single Do It Again. This laidback, mid-tempoed version of Cantaloupe Island also teaches an important lesson about funk: It doesn't have to be fast to be effective.

El Chicano would have modest commercial success with Viva Tirado's jazz-instrumental title track, a surprising top-30 pop hit, and Tell Her She's Lovely, which peaked at No. 40 in 1973. Yet the group would never be as popular as fellow Californians Santana, to which they were inevitably compared, and frequent personnel shuffles kept the band only intermittently active throughout the 1980s and '90s. According their official website, original members Espinosa and bassist Freddie Sanchez are assembling a new lineup.

Cantaloupe Island (link expired)

There's great footage of El Chicano playing Viva Tirado in 1971 here.

And, from 1985, here's Hancock and longtime bandmates Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Tony Williams playing Cantaloupe Island:

Buy El Chicano music here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Soul: Big Long Slidin' Thing — Dinah Washington (1954)

In the last four years of her too-short life and career, Dinah Washington came under fire from critics for supposedly pandering to the marketplace by recording a series of string-smothered, mainstream pop songs.

The criticism didn't stop her, of course: By then, the Swingin' Miss D's had long established a reputation for singing whatever she damn well pleased. You gotta love a performer who's as comfortable crooning a silky pop ballad like What a Diff'rence A Day Makes as she is sinking all of her bluesy chops and womanly wiles into something more salacious, like 1949's Long John Blues or its close relation, Big Long Slidin' Thing.

Recorded for Mercury in 1954, Big Long Slidin' Thing finds a 30-year-old Washington pining for her absent man who's apparently proficient with his extraordinary instrument — a trombone (cough, cough), naturally. Such sexual double-entendres were commonplace in "suggestive" R&B of the era (Big Ten-Inch Record; It Ain't The Meat; I Love To Play Your Piano, Let Me Bang Your Box) but Washington infuses her naughty wordplay with charged eroticism, tranforming a mere novelty song into a sexual tsunami. Washington was often called The Queen of the Blues; on Big Long Slidin' Thing, she proves she also could be Queen of the Blue.

Big Long Slidin' Thing (link expired)

And here's Washington, two years later, performing the G-rated I Don't Hurt Anymore. If you're not amazed at how she could be convincing singing naughty and nice, ask yourself: How do you think Diana Krall would handle My Humps?

Buy it here

Drunk — Anna Domino (1986)

As Leslie Feist collected five Juno Awards last weekend in my hometown, I thought about Anna Domino, whose superb 1986 debut (pictured left) could have provided the musical blueprint for 1-2-3-4 singer.

Domino applied cool, sensual vocals to addictively rhythmic jazz-pop almost two decades before Feist did the same on her breakthrough CD Let It Die.

Unlike Feist, however, Domino's Euro chill-out sounds didn't register even the slightest blip on the mainstream radar, at least in North America. Her music is ripe for rediscovery.

Admittedly, Domino's inaugural effort now sounds somewhat dated due to the synths and drum machines employed by co-producers Marc Moulin and Alan Rankine (of Associates fame) but the material and performances remain fresh.

Drunk, the aural equivalent of a vicious hangover, is one of the album's highlights. Fittingly, it gets off to a staggering start as Domino, in a low voice, recalls the events of The Night Before. "To think you swallowed all that junk," she sings with barely concealed contempt, "with those people that you now despise." The song finds its groove in time for the chorus, when Domino asks her perpetually wasted subject: "What'll it take to break you?/What'll it take to make you rise above it?" Drunk ends up being the rarest of pop songs — an intervention you can dance to.

Drunk (link expired)

Buy it here

Domino's sophomore album, 1987's This Time, marked a dip in quality but had some fine moments, especially the title track and the single Tempting (below):

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Specials: Live!

At first, I was pretty jazzed when I heard The Specials were planning to reunite for a series of shows later this year. The Two-Tone act certainly left us all wanting more when its classic lineup split after two brilliant albums, the immortal Ghost Town single and a reputation for fun, frenzied live shows. No wonder, then, the media jumped on Terry Hall's recent comments on BBC 6 Music that suggested the lineup is rehearsing for its first live performances in 27 years.

I immediately hit the worldwide web looking for more details and noticed all of the stories failed to address one obvious question: Is Specials founder/keyboardist Jerry Dammers, who's never seemed remotely interested in resurrecting his old band, actually taking part ... and if so, who twisted his arm? And how? Without Dammers, a Specials 'reunion' is as legitimate as The Beat 'reuniting' without David Steele and Andy Cox. However, with Dammers and all of the other original members, a Specials reunion could be the musical event of the year.

Need proof? Check out these three sizzling live performances from Dance Craze, the long-deleted 1981 soundtrack to a Two-Tone concert film of the same name:

Nite Klub live (link expired)
Concrete Jungle live (link expired)
Man at C&A live (link expired)

Buy Specials music here