Saturday, August 16, 2008

Boz Scaggs -- "Miss Sun" (1981)

Silk Degrees was just a magical album where the merging of Boz Scaggs and the songwriting/musicianship of the rock band Toto shook this obscure blues singer out of anonymity and turned him into the blue-eyes soul boy of the 70's, selling albums by the truckload.

For some reason, with each successive album, he switched collaborators and producers -- first with Down Two Then Left (Michael Omartian) and then Middle Man (David Foster). While both of those albums were vastly underrated yet still very fine, they didn't sell anywhere near the exalted Silk Degrees.

For his first greatest hits album, trying to ensure a single that would put him back on top, he went back to the Toto well -- specifically keyboardist David Paich -- and delivered a smash that sounded less like Silk Degrees and more like, well, Toto with soul.

"Miss Sun" had a funky edge, a groovin' fat synth bass, a smoky B-3 organ, a brief bluesy Wurlitzer electric piano solo, and a spotlight on one of the background singers for the song's lengthy mostly instrumental conclusion. If the song was on Silk Degrees, it probably would have had live electric bass and a dominant string arrangement, but this sounded a little more raw and live. It ramps up a few keys towards the end, almost sounding like the opening build-up of Rufus' "Once You Get Started," synth horns slamming hard.

You can tell the song is Paich-style all the way, if you've listened through to Silk Degrees or early Toto albums -- the clever use of minor chords to transition into different keys in the chorus, and verses that almost sound like they shouldn't work, but they do. What do I mean by that? Paich's chords "strain" to connect, and somehow they do, it's a vibe thing, and that's the best way I can describe it.

Been thinkin' 'bout you all night
Guess you got me in your spell
But I think that I'll be all right
Even if I don't get well

Hey, Miss Sun
What could I say
I tried to hold you
but the moon got in the way
It won't be long before the morning
Has you back in my arms

I can still remember
What you told me with your eyes
One kiss
Now it's down to this
Guess it's time you realize

Hey, Miss Sun
What could I say
I tried to hold you
But the moon got in the way
It won't be long before the morning
Has you back in my arms
Has you back in my arms

Here's Boz and his band performing "Miss Sun" live in 1985 in Japan, a country where he has never lost his great popularity. Notice the smoke coming out of his mouth when he's singing -- perhaps a chilly night?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Turtles -- "Happy Together" (1967)

Can this be one of the most perfect pop songs ever written, performed and arranged? I'm thinking it's got to be in my top 10.

The Turtles, formerly the surf band the Crossfires, had a string of "sunshine pop" hits in the mid-60's that make it well worth your while to buy their greatest hits album. Many of their songs were highly slick, west coast groovy, semi-bubblegum tunes -- almost all of them not written by the band, but an artillery of LA's top songwriters. In many ways, they were a musical precursor to the wonderful Grass Roots.

The Turtles, besides the rather un-threatening goofy name, were the home of the infamous Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, better known later as dubbed by Frank Zappa as "the Phlorescent Leach and Eddie" when they joined his Mothers of Invention, and later just shortened to "Flo and Eddie." As you'll see in the videos below, Kaylan was the good looking lead singer, practically standing in for rock and roll's first bar mitzvah boy. His good friend Volman was his comic foil, a heavyset goofball with a kinky hair and nerdy glasses, always looking to make trouble or crack him up mid-song.

The verses of "Happy Together" were based on one of music's perennial chord patterns, the descending from the E minor, to the D, to the C, to the B major (ironically, the same blueprint for The Grass Roots' "I'd Wait A Million Years" verses -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it!). The lyrics are very much like a nursery rhyme, and that is why I feel it is so instantly familiar to any living breathing human being with its cadences and rhymes:

Imagine me and you, I do
I think about you day and night
It's only right
To think about the girl you love
And hold her tight
So happy together.

If I should call you up
Invest a dime
And you say you belong to me
And ease my mind
Imagine how the world could be
So very fine
So happy together.

And then later...

Me and you
And you and me
No matter how they tossed the dice
It had to be
The only one for me is you
And you for me
So happy together.

What brings it to a whole other level is the chorus, where it shifts into E major, straight electric guitar chords on the eighth beats, lots of horn and layered vocals ("pa-paa!"), like a blissful explosion of love, flower power and euphoria.

I can't see me loving nobody but you
For all my life
When you're with me
Baby the skies will be blue
For all my life.

This is akin to when Frankie Valli revs to the next gear on the second part of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" when he belts out: "I-I love you baby, and if it's quite all right, I need you baby, until the morning light...." You are forced, literally forced to sing along, perhaps loudly, maybe even in a public setting and hypnotically forgetting any embarrassment.

For crying out loud, this is the song that knocked one of my very favorite Beatles songs, "Penny Lane," out of the #1 spot! I remember being at some Queens, NY day camp in the summer of '67, picking up dodgeball throwing tips from some kid named Barry (a two-handed grip on two sides of the ball, making an aggressive circular wind-up and then letting it loose at some poor kid's stomach), and "Happy Together" was rotating constantly on the AM radio. You just could not get it out of your head and everybody sang along to those nursery rhyme lyrics.

Let's just stop and honor these anonymous songwriters of "Happy Together," who never quite became as famous as Lennon and McCartney, or Bacharach and David, but who had the amazing skill to write these classic unforgettable pop songs. "Happy Together" was written by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who also collaborated on Three Dog Night's "Celebrate."

Below, a fun home-movie-type promo video shot in '67 for "Happy Together," followed by their semi-live performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Traffic -- "Glad/Freedom Rider" (1970)

In his long career in rock and roll, Steve Winwood's best musical work was with the prog/jazz/rock/folk band Traffic. Considered a classic rock staple, Traffic's star seems to have faded over the years, but then again, they were never an easy band to pigeonhole, like Led Zep's heavy metal blues bombast, Pink Floyd's slow downer space rock, The Doors' exotic drugged out bliss attacks or Creedence's tremolo-ridden swamp rock.

In their first incarnation, mostly with guitarist Dave Mason aboard, they were distinctly psychedelic ("Paper Sun," "Hole In My Shoe") or just kind of dirge-like ("Dear Mister Fantasy"). Winwood detoured to his one famous Blind Faith album with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, but then reformed Traffic with a whole different direction on what was supposed to be his first solo album, John Barleycorn Must Die.

Traffic was truly a once-in-a-lifetime melding of tremendous musical talents: keyboardist/singer Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi (who co-wrote much of the material with Winwood), and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood, adding a bassist and percussionist for their next album, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

John Barleycorn opener "Glad" was almost like a gauntlet being thrown down, a seven-minute jazz rock instrumental featuring Winwood's lightening quick bebop piano melody up front, his overdubbed B-3 organ and Wood's exuberant blowing saxophone solo, so vivid that they sounded very much live and like a band jamming away in a basement club somewhere. With exotic minor chord changes, pumping in like some kind of action TV series theme, "Glad" signaled that this Mason-less Traffic was taking a different road than just about anything else out there.

In that heyday of Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Creedence's "Green River," Traffic's "Glad" must have sounded very hip and out-of-nowhere to progressive radio DJ's with its flat-out jazz fusion style. Listening to it again, I'm not even quite sure there's a bass guitar on it.

Just as "Glad" slows to a fading stop, the twisted melody of Winwood's basic piano chords and Wood's saxophone interrupt to start "Freedom Rider." With a beautiful reverb around one of Winwood's best vocal performances, Traffic shifts more into a galloping rock vein while keeping the jazz touches intact. Those guys put together some strange chord combinations, but yet they worked brilliantly for one strange set of lyrics:

Like a hurricane around your heart
When earth and sky are torn apart.
He comes gathering up the bits
While hoping that the puzzle fits.
He leads you, he leads you.
Freedom rider.

With a silver star between his eyes
That open up at hidden lies.
Big man crying with defeat,
See people gathering in the street.
You feel him, you feel him.
Freedom rider.

When lightning strikes you to the bone,
You turn around, you're all alone.
By the time you hear that siren sound,
Then your soul is in the lost and found.
Forever, forever.
Freedom rider.

The song's highlight is undoubtedly Wood's wicked flute solo, which unlike Ian Anderson's very precise classicism in Jethro Tull, is loose and warm. The build-up to the solo is a brilliant arrangement, a musical detour that leads from a raging minor chord peaking to a major one, the bass rolling upwards, the drums doing a long fill. You expect some wild solo to come in at this crescendo -- a keyboard? a guitar? -- but it's that cool flute puckering away, the bass hitting the upper notes and an octave below in synch with Capaldi's drums. It's a neat trick for Wood to start off rather low key and then practically screaming through his instrument by the end of his solo.

Winwood has said Traffic was a "jam band," and he was absolutely right, although in an eclectic style all their own. Whereas War was all groove, percussion and funk, and the Grateful Dead endless acoustic guitar excursions, Traffic merged rock, bebop and folk into one memorable melting pot.

Below is Traffic circa 1972 in Santa Monica performing a revved-up "Glad," when the Memphis Shoals rhythm section of drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood, with percussionist Rebop Kawku Baah were now part of the band. Afterwards from the same show, "Freedom Rider," accompanied by some light show effects in the beginning. Capaldi looks like he's playing tambourine on both songs.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes -- "Theme From Shaft" (1971)

I had Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" lined up to do at some point, but his sudden death today at the age of 65 prompted me to post this tonight in his honor.

While most people under the age of 30 probably know Hayes best as the voice of Chef in the Comedy Central cartoon "South Park" and his song from the show "Chocolate Salty Balls."

However, in the early 70's Hayes reached the pinnacle of the music world with his breakthrough soundtrack to the movie "Shaft," which was pretty much the blueprint for all the blaxploitation movies that followed it. More than the music, Hayes represented an unusual, sexy and magnetic figure for the the black power movement, enough so that his follow-up album to the Shaft soundtrack was a double album called Black Moses.

Even before Shaft, Hayes and his partner David Porter were one of the ace in-house songwriting teams at Stax Records, penning such hits as "I Thank You," "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin'" for Sam and Dave. When he stepped out as a solo performer, he first made his mark on his album Hot Buttered Soul, which was an early landmark in the "quiet storm" genre. The cover unveiled the trademark Hayes appearance: lots of gold chain jewelry, sunglasses, many colored flowing robes, and a closeup photo of his very bald head. The album contained epic slowed-down versions of Bacharach and David's "Walk On By" and Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," with all kinds of soft strings and horns, electric piano chords, and Hayes' deep bass oozing voice.

Both "Shaft" the movie and Hayes' soundtrack were landmarks in many ways. In a first for a mainstream Hollywood movie, the black man was the hero front and center -- a handsome New York City black private detective played by model Richard Roundtree not taking any gruff as he tried to find the missing daughter of a mobster, make love to his girlfriend, and bully his way around Italian gangsters. With "Shaft" being such a success, it opened the doors for many other "blaxploitation movies" like "Coffey," "The Mack," "Trouble Man" and "Cleopatra Jones."

For the musical score, Hayes had a double-album tour de force of jazz ballads, bluesy riffs, and gospel preach-alongs, many with those unmistakable vocals, eventually winning an Academy Award. "Cafe Regio's," named after the Bleeker Street joint in Greenwich Village, was a superb jazzy instrumental, prominently featuring a bouncy octaved guitar lead. Another instrumental, the short "Shaft's Cab Ride," was used in WCBS-TV News' commercials.

"Theme From Shaft" was the big hit, a four-minute mostly instrumental journey through the urban jungle, mostly built on two chords, the wah-wah guitar up front in the mix and the pounding hi-hat rhythm keeping pace with John Shaft's on-screen plow through the streets of New York. Hayes' sparse call and response lyrics with the female singers were pretty straight forward: you don't mess around with Shaft.

Who's the black private dick
that's a sex machine to all the chicks?
You're damn right!

Who is the man
that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?

Who's the cat that won't cop out
when there's danger all about
Right on

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother...
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)

He's a complicated man
but no one understands him but his woman
(John Shaft!)

When Hayes went to pick up his Academy Awards, it was an unforgettable sight -- imagine a huge bald black man covered in colorful robes, gold chains hanging around his neck and across his bare chest, gleaming sunglasses on his face, something that the mostly white Hollywood had just never quite seen before.

Here are a four great videos as a tribute to Isaac Hayes and his classic Shaft score. First, Hayes performing the song live in 1973, accompanied on stage by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Then a wonderful behind the scenes video of Hayes teaching his band "Cafe Regio's" and "Theme From Shaft" and if you want to see how black studio musicians dressed and played at that time, well, there you go, with the funky clothes, cigarette dangling from their mouthes. Then a three minute trailer with numerous scenes and gunplay from the movie and Hayes' score ("Shaft! Hotter than Bond! Cooler than Bullitt!"). Finally, the classic opening credit scene from the film.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Daryl Hall & John Oates -- "She's Gone" (1973)

When I saw Daryl Hall and John Oates perform in concert over a year ago at SUNY Purchase, it was then that I realized how unbelievably successful these two artists were in the 70's and 80's. They performed for over 90 minutes and believe me when I say that they could have done several more of their greatest hits no problem. Some artists can fill a greatest hits album with several songs... these guys can do a double album easily.

In 1975, I entered the dorms at SUNY Buffalo with a cast of characters from all over the state, everybody bringing their own musical taste blasting from their phonographs. One of the freshmen on my wing, Paul, began dating a sophomore named Elyse, who was absolutely obsessed with Hall and Oates, whom I had never heard of. She played the "silver" album repeatedly, which had the duo in glam feminine makeup, which dogged their reputation for years (see right). When "Sara Smile" broke out as a hit, their old record company Atlantic re-released the single "She's Gone" from their Abandoned Luncheonette album to capitalize on that success, and it followed right up the charts.

Back in the earlier RCA days, Hall & Oates were bouncing back and forth between folk rock ("When The Morning Comes," "Las Vegas Turnaround") and some of the blue-eyed soul that would blossom later on. Abandoned Luncheonette, produced by recording legend Arif Mardin, had an artsy existential-looking cover, nothing that conveyed the real slickness that brought these guys fame, but it was the favorite of many fans. Although Hall and Oates took over the production duties for all of their future albums, Mardin was an inspired choice, having overseen The Rascals (another group of black-music fixated white boys), Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, and Dusty Springfield earlier.

Daryl Hall was the talkative, good looking blond guy who sang the majority of the lead vocals and played keyboards. When I saw him perform in 2006, let's just say he was pretty well preserved. John Oates always had a great, more throaty rock kind of voice, bore the trademark mustache, but he remained much quieter as a stage presence and interviewee, swaying off to the side on his rhythm guitar.

"She's Gone," as with a number of their other future hits, would be reminiscent of the Philly soul hitting its zenith right about the time it came out. Along with San Francisco's Boz Scaggs, it must have seemed quite unusual to see prominent white guys cop off this distinct slick black style of music. Based on a simple major two-chord motif with a steady bass note in the verses, "She's Gone" has the classic twangy wah-wah guitar chords, Mardin-arranged strings that climb into the choruses, a big fat thumping electric bass, and the kind of descending chord pattern in the chorus that Philly soul hits were made of. As a musician/composer, I was very into that simple two-chord verse pattern and the way Hall and Oates used the tension of those root notes. Looking back at their catalog, those two were tremendously talented composers.

Everybody's high on consolation
Everybody's trying to tell me what is right for me, yeah
My daddy tried to bore me with a sermon
But it's plain to see that they can't comfort me

Sorry Charlie for the imposition
I think I've got it, I got the strength to carry on, yeah
I need a drink and a quick decision
Now it's up to me, ooh what will be?

She's gone she's gone
Oh why? Oh why?
I better learn how to face it
She's gone She's gone
Oh why? Oh why?
I'd pay the devil to replace her
She's gone She's gone
Oh why? Oh why?
What went wrong?

Get up in the morning, look in the mirror
One less toothbrush hanging in the stand
My face ain't looking any younger
Now I can see love's taken a toll on me

While a three-and-a-half minute single was edited for Top 40 radio, they cut out much of the good stuff from the full 5:15 version. Some of the song's little and big highlights for me: the 1-2 knocked claves in the song's opening, the repeated "got it, got it" in the second verse, the short soprano sax solo that slides in at the end of the second chorus, and most definitely the huge break towards the end when the song goes up three half keys, the strings and horns powering it up each step along with a sharp electric guitar lead and the bass rolling upwards each time.

Here's Hall and Oates and their band performing "She's Gone" live in 1976 on the great UK program "Old Grey Whistle Test."