The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).
She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:
“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.
“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.
“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.”
The actor, Billy Crystal (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.
Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’
But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):
Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.
2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.
Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90’s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960’s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit ‘Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his time in the 1980’s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.
Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930’s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:
Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train': the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:
She could almost make me a believer.
In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’
It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:
My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!
Some readers may have been mystified as to why on Saturday, apparently for no particular reason, I posted a short piece on Billy Taylor’s composition ‘I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free).’
The reason was that today (Nov 12) is the 50th anniversary of the original recording of the tune by Billy Taylor’s Trio. My little post, complete with YouTube clips by Taylor and Nina Simone, was prepared in advance, all ready to go up today. Then I pressed the wrong button and posted it early.
So here, on the anniversary itself, is the original version from Taylor’s album Right Here, Right Now, released early in 1964, but recorded exactly 50 years ago today:
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a gospel/jazz song written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, best known for the recording by Nina Simone in 1967 on her Silk & Soul album. Billy Taylor’s original version (as “I Wish I Knew”) was recorded November 12, 1963 and released on his Right Here, Right Now album (Capitol ST-2039) the following year. His 1967 instrumental take was later used as the theme music for The Film programme on BBC television.
Billy Taylor has explained: “I wrote this song, perhaps my best known composition, for my daughter Kim. This is one of the best renditions I’ve done, because it is very spiritual.”
Here’s the composer, Dr Taylor, in action:
And here’s the extraordinary Ms Simone, revisiting her famous interpretation of the tune:
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, it seems right to bring you some of the music that sustained the civil rights movement in the sixties – and beyond.
This selection is by Nick Morrison of NPR, as are the brief comments:
I Wish I knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) – Nina Simone
Of the many musicians who used their music to advance the cause of civil rights, Nina Simone was one of the most passionate, most outspoken and most gifted. Although many of her civil rights era songs had their origins earlier in the 20th century, this song was written in 1967 by noted jazz pianist and educator Dr Billy Taylor (along with Dick Dallas), and was recorded by Simone that same year. It quickly became one of the musical mainstays of the movement.
Selma March – Grant Green
The march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., took place in March 1965. Today, some people tend to forget that there were two failed attempts to make the journey earlier that month. The first march ended in bloodshed, while the second was met with a restraining order. That ruling was quickly overturned and, on March 21, Dr King began the historic four-day march. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This jubilant instrumental by jazz guitarist Grant Green seems to reflect the jubilation surrounding the Selma march’s completion. A 1965 recording, it also features Harold Vick (sax), Larry Young (organ), Ben Dixon (drums) and Candido Camero (congas).
We Shall Overcome – Larry Goldings
Many people, when asked to name a song that encapsulates the civil rights movement, will pick “We Shall Overcome.” It was, indeed, the movement’s theme song, sung by countless people all over the world. That’s how we often think of the song: large groups of people gathered together, singing it as they struggle against mighty odds. Pianist Larry Goldings, however, gives us a different view of this classic. Accompanied only by trumpeter (actually, he’s on cornet – JD) John Sneider, Goldings turns “We Shall Overcome” into a wistful, intimate and moving meditation.
This Little Light of Mine – Sam Cooke
Folklorist and activist Zilphia Horton did a wonderful thing when she introduced this children’s gospel song to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Vocalist Sam Cooke did something equally wonderful, and much more amazing. He took this song that people were singing at sit-ins and marches and brought it into America’s toniest nightclubs, putting the music of The Movement in front of an audience that probably didn’t spend much time at sit-ins and marches. Cooke performed this joyful and uplifting version of “the Little Light Of Mine” in 1964 in New York’s Copacabana.
Lift Every Voice And Sing – Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff
[No Youtube clip available, so click here]
In 1919, this song (by James and John Johnson) was adopted by the NAACP as “The Negro National Anthem.” Its resonance in the civil rights movement is indisputable and, like all of the songs in this brief overview, it remains an incredibly moving piece of music today. This soulful instrumental version by alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, with his long-time musical partner and organist Jimmy McGriff, is one of the best. Prepare to be taken to the river.
If this doesn’t lift your spirits and brighten up your weekend, I don’t know what will.
Two middle aged men recall how, as young teenage would-be journalists in 1964, they got to interview Satch. And we can hear the recording of the great man talking about his “chops” and other crucial matters. I dedicate this to Comrade Dave Osler, who last weekend admitted to me that he now, at long last, finally “gets” Louis Armstrong…
H/t: Michael Steinman and his great ‘Jazz Lives’ blog.
NB: The best Louis Armstrong website, written by his Number One fan, researcher and historian Ricky Riccardi, here.
Bobby Bland (Robert Calvin Brooks), blues and soul singer, born 27 January 1930; died 23 June 2013
Above: ‘Stormy Monday’ (1962) with Wayne Bennett on guitar
Tony Russell writes (in the Graun):
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, who has died aged 83, was among the great storytellers of blues and soul music. In songs such as I Pity the Fool, Cry Cry Cry and Who Will the Next Fool Be, he created tempestuous arias of love, betrayal and resignation, set against roiling, dramatic orchestrations, and left the listener drained but awed.
It was a skill that came gradually. His husky voice was gorgeous from the start, but as a young man he followed BB King – for a while literally, as his valet and chauffeur – and his singing took on a special character only after he began to study the recorded sermons of the Detroit preacher CL Franklin, Aretha’s father. “That’s where I got my squall from,” he recalled. That alchemy of blues and gospel cadences would create one of the most affecting voices in black music
Read the rest, here
1/ Richie Havens
• Richard Pierce Havens, folk singer and guitarist, born 21 January 1941; died 22 April 2013
Richie Havens, who has died of a heart attack aged 72, is best known for his opening performance at the historic 1969 Woodstock festival. He had been scheduled to go on fifth, but major traffic snarl-ups delayed many of the performers, so he was put on first and told to perform a lengthy set.
He entranced the audience for three hours, being called back time and again for encores. With his repertoire exhausted, he improvised a song based on the spiritual Motherless Child. This became Freedom, his best known song and an anthem for a generation (from the Graun‘s obituary)
2/ George Jones
• George Glenn Jones, country singer, born 12 September 1931; died 26 April 2013
George Jones, who has died aged 81, was country music’s most stylish and emotional singer. Less well-known outside the genre than his one-time wife Tammy Wynette, he had one of the finest voices of the 20th century. He was the king of honky-tonk, the raw electric country style, and was in a direct line from Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams (again from the Graun‘s obit, written in this case by Hank Wangford).