Friday, January 22, 2010

Blood, Sweat & Tears -- "Spinning Wheel" (1969)

It's amazing to think that in rock history, there were only two jazz/rock bands that ever became huge: Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. While both were pioneers that began in the late 60's, they could not have been more different: Chicago was a rock band with jazz elements, powered by a guitarist who worshiped Jimi Hendrix (the late Terri Kath), and had more hits than I have fingers and toes that went on for a few decades.

On the other hand, Blood, Sweat & Tears was a jazz band with rock chops, a big band New York vibe that swung hard, and like "The Natural," they soared to mystical heights once early on and never got it back again.

While initially an experiment conceived by rock Zelig Al Kooper for their debut album, Kooper departed, and in stepped lead singer David Clayton-Thomas, the stars aligned and they produced the magical album Blood, Sweat & Tears. Ironically, this album, and most of Chicago's classic output were produced by the same man, James William Guercio.

Like a bunch of West 52nd Street jazz escapees who wanted to put some rock juice into the mix, Blood, Sweat & Tears were the truest combination of the two genres: merging bluesy rock with bebop swing and chords you just never heard on Top 40 radio before. As a matter of fact, this was a band where you really had to listen to all the parts, because they were just such accomplished musicians that there was no member who really played "normal" rock style -- they were all skilled moving cogs in the wheel.

And that wheel was "Spinning Wheel," the second single from the album that just blew the roof off and you couldn't hide from it. I urge you to listen to the bass, because it's all over the place, not like any rock song at the time. Like all the best BS&T songs, the arrangement was amazing, horns blasting up and down like the song's immortal opening "what goes up" line, key builds between verses, and clever spaces to let Bobby Columby's airy drum riffs cut between the lines.

Happy enough with the single, the album version went a full minute longer with a crazy jazz jam break, featuring an extroverted Maynard Ferguson-type trumpet solo, swinging piano chords mixed clearly in another speaker, and a sax blast right off a Sonny Rollins album.

That never-heard-it-before rumble earned them a spot on the bill at Yasgur's Farm. Think about it -- this large group of intellectual-looking studious jazz/rock nerds actually played Woodstock, surrounded by the pinnacles of raw hippie culture and acid rock like Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ten Years After, Sly & The Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

I had my own personal musical connection to the song back in junior high school. Pushing aside the classical pieces of my old world piano teacher, I became a regular buyer of rock sheet music at Sam Goody, Colony and other stores. "Spinning Wheel" was one of them, because it started so promptly on that groovy E7th-A7th-D7th-G piano bass note riff. Man, I practiced that song over and over, because I was heading to the elementary school talent show to play what I knew. The real bitch of the song was that wacky jazz chord, one I had to really put my fingers in some weird formation, when the "let the spinning wheel turn" line came up. You know that part -- it's like a cross between a major and minor chord.

When I had my chance on the baby grand piano at the Robert H. Goddard JHS stage, I got nervous and fumbled. I don't even remember if I finished the whole song. All I know is the girl piano prodigy got up shortly afterward and played the whole damn thing perfectly with no sheet music in front of her.

Below, you have Blood, Sweat & Tears doing the single version of "Spinning Wheel" on live TV back in '69 (and the only solo is Steve Katz's little guitar number), followed by the full album version below it.

1 comment:

Prof Groff said...

Thanks so much for that. What can you tell us about the background of "Blues, Part II." There seems to be little written about the song.