Saturday, August 11, 2018

One Hit No More, No. 8: The Exciters, "Tell Him" (And There's a Lot to Tell)

Oh, hell yes.
If you asked anyone who has heard The Exciters’ “Tell Him” what they liked about it, they might note the bright intro, which twinkles a little thanks to what sounds someone merrily tapping on a one of those baby xylophones. They’d almost certainly bring up the vocals, belted out by lead singer Brenda Reid with a clarity that borders on digital/ABBA quality (so fresh, so clean). “Tell Him” wasn’t The Exciters only big hit, but it’s the only one they got to themselves.

When you go deeper into their catalog, though, and listen to more songs, you also hear the same thing over and over again: these ladies really want love. It wouldn’t be unfair to phrase it as Reid and her back-up singers, Carolyn Johnson and Lillian Walker, throwing themselves at the men they want. It sounds desperate at first, but, if you put some thought into when this song came out - 1963 - that flips the dynamic on its head. Reid doesn’t just “know something about love,” she’s doing something about it. Dammit. Girl is gonna go get it.

That cultural reversal didn’t go unnoticed: it’s The Exciters’ gift to pop culture. As one biography put it:

“’Tell Him’ boasted an intensity that signified a sea change in the presentation and perception of femininity in popular music, paving the way for such tough, sexy acts as the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes.”
The Exciters’ planted a bigger footprint in pop culture than “Tell Him,” and another, eager review highlights the injustice of making light of their impact: “in the USA they are lumped together with acts both sublime and ridiculous as ‘One Hit Wonders.’” They don’t deserve the cultural downgrade, because if you look, you see The Exciters slip into some curious places. “Tell Him” did more than pop up all over pop culture, and inspire multiple covers (not always good ones (and just plain weird ones*), it also inspired Dusty Springfield to go solo and switch up her sound (Wikipedia’s history includes a fantastic quote from her). Moreover, they had one more massive hit - just one they lost to a version put out by another act. If you know Manfred Mann (with or without his Earth Band), now you know he didn’t record the original of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”; The Exciters did, a year earlier, and with one less “Diddy.”

Friday, August 3, 2018

One Hit No More, No. 7: The Cascades, Rhythm of the Rain (& They Didn't Even Time It)

Next step, whatever you think of it.
I’m going to squeeze out this post, and I mean no disrespect to the artist(s), Claude John Gummoe, and the band he fronted, The Cascades, or to the song, “Rhythm of the Rain.” I love that song, in fact, and have since the first time I heard it (god knows when). The delicacy of the music feels poking out the raw edges of your heartbreak (if in that mid-20th-century, middle-America way of suppressing emotions that recalls the same state of shock I experienced when I broke my leg; long story). It’s a poignant, touching piece of pop, a brittle smile through a personal tragedy. It’s got the chops to survive the test of time…

…which begs the question of why Gummoe did this with it. (Or even something like it.) That’s a 1990 “dance remix” of the song, something that, per Wikipedia, Gummoe did record. Why? To do something between hazard a guess and create a narrative, some people make music - or art of any kind, really - to express themselves, or find some form of companionship with something they think or feel, while other people make music because they like being famous. I don’t know Gummoe at all, never mind well enough to drop him into the “fame-first” column - and I’m not, he’s a stand-in for a hypothetical in this scenario - but, look, some people can perform the same set of songs for years, even decades, and still get a charge out of that. That probably lands between loving to make people happy and loving being the center of attention. I don’t judge, either way. You can see the same thing with Frankie Ford (written up earlier in this series); the man just loved performing, so he kept getting up there.

Neither Gummoe, nor The Cascades did anything remotely as high-profile as “Rhythm of the Rain” for the rest of their careers. After a week listening to a 20-song collection of their hits, I hear, at most, the echo of the ringing of a bell in “Dreamin’,” but that could just be me remixing other songs in my own head. (Turns out that’s a borrowed song, something I learned from a site that doubles as another history on The Cascades.) I didn’t get much out of that 20-song collection, honestly. While it’s not ear-stabbing torture or anything, The Cascades play within a fairly narrow band-width. Musically, it steps away from the other “one-hit bands” I reviewed earlier, doo-wop and Motown acts (like Don & Juan and The Contours, respectively). They borrow doo-wop vocals - see, “Dreamin’,” but also “Is There a Chance?” and “Let It Be Me” - and, even if those songs sound like 50s rock ‘n’ roll, you can hear some 60s sound slipping in. That's even more true of “Punch and Judy” and “Cheryl’s Goin’ Home.” (Also, that photo over the Youtube video for "Punch and Judy, right? When did that drop?)

Thursday, August 2, 2018

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 57: Amy Winehouse, Frank, and Bent Timelines

What I pictured. With fist-fights and more blood.
I’m not going to spend a ton of time background Amy Winehouse, mostly because, as one of the less cranky reviews I read this week puts it:

“Of course, Winehouse has also generated a lot of publicity due to her self-destructive lifestyle, but since tabloids don’t sell records (hello Britney and J. Lo), we’ll leave her extracurricular exploits out of most of this discussion.”
I read worse, though, much worse. Pitchfork's review, especially, had zero goddamn patience for Winehouse’s notorious lifestyle. It opens with calling “the self-destructive artist routine” “bullshit” (and not because that's wrong), and then continues with this razor-sharp dismissal of Frank, her debut album that was re-released in the United States in 2007:

“So instead of a new record, Americans are now getting a modified version of Frank, her first album, originally released four years ago and subsequently dissed by the artist herself.”
In order to go forward, I have to back up a bit. Amy Winehouse came out of nowhere for me, like (I’m guessing) most Americans. Going by memory (don't), “Rehab” came first, and “You Know I’m No Good” came after, and they landed as a double blow of nausea and regret (respectively?). I bought Back to Black, the album on which both tracks appeared - again, like most Americans, or at least quite a few of us. I either didn’t know, or didn’t recall that the American music industry dropped a pile of Grammys on that album and Winehouse, but was reminded when I read up on her, starting with Wikipedia. I have vague memories of Frank coming out and understanding it (because linear time) as a follow up to Back to Black. It’s here, though, where the narrative I remember falls apart.

Both of the reviews linked to above introduced me to an undercurrent of frustration-cum-hostility that I’d simply never heard (for the curious, you can find a dogpile of reviews via Metacritic). In the same vein that Frank boiled down to cashing in, as opposed to an artist taking her next step to the center of our collective attention, it’s a more accurate timeline/reality than the one I experienced - and I’d recommend that Pitchfork review, in particular, for the way it wrestles with how fans/community should respond to an artist, no matter how talented, undergoing a slow-burn chemical combustion (in so many words, to consume or not to consume?). Per that personal separation, even naivete, I remember her death in tragic terms, with somber talk about the toll of addiction, the borderline accidental nature of her death (something about “alcohol poisoning,” only brought on because she hadn't drank in so long), and a social-media lens outpouring of grieving farewells about all Amy Winehouse meant to millions of fans all over the globe.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

One Hit No More, No. 6: The Contours, "Do You Love Me"

Hmm. Maybe I'm letting 'em off easy.
More than a little hyperactivity surrounds Detroit’s “other” Motown group, the Contours, and it goes beyond their live-wire stage shows. They changed personnel like most people change clothes - e.g., often and without much thought. One website I found organizes that detail in a way that draws the high-volume, “anyone can go” turnover in high relief, but nothing clarifies the mysterious mechanics quite like the lawsuit that wound up blessing the existence of two groups that toured at the same time - one as “The Contours with Joe Billingslea” the other as “The Contours featuring Sylvester Potts.”

To second guess the lawsuit a little, Potts wasn’t even an original Contour.

Whatever the current line-up at the precise moment, The Contours chief claim to fame was 1962’s “Do You Love Me,” a song so nice, it made ‘em famous twice. The second time happened when that song showed up on the soundtrack for one of the 1980s most iconic movies, Dirty Dancing (not a fan, for the record; oh yeah, just put Baby in a corner). The soundtrack(s) for that song re-charted as high as No. 11 and kicked off a brand new, 10-month “Dirty Dancing Concert Tour,” and for a group that never really stopped playing (or rearranging the line-up).

To return to the stray reference above to the “’other Motown group,” The Contours worked and lived in the shadow of the label’s bigger names - e.g., The Temptations, The Four Tops, and The Miracles. If it makes The Contours feel better, I didn’t recognize The Miracles until I put “Smokey Robinson and the” in front of it. Then again, The Contours owe a couple of their other hits (yes, they had them; more later) to Smokey Robinson, including “FirstI Look at the Purse” and, a personal favorite for the way it gives them something else to do, the ballad “That Day She Needed Me.”

All in all, the story of The Contours turns on a collection of near-misses, even at the beginning. They had to take two runs at Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy Jr., before he decided to sign them, and even that took the familial connection of a recently-acquired bass singer, Hubert Johnson. When they failed to impress Gordy face-to-face, his cousin, “R&B star and Gordy associate Jackie Wilson” got Gordy to give them another shot after The Contours, then called The Blenders, auditioned for him. That they also came close to losing “Do You Love Me” says everything about how lucky everyone ever associated with The Contours was to hit it big.

Friday, July 27, 2018

New to Me, Hip-Hop Project, No. 1: Hip Hop Evolution & The Sugarhill Gang

Wait. Start in the middle again. One more FINE.
This entire sub-project started because I couldn’t think of anything to say about Nas’ Illmatic. While I can rattle off a decent list of hip-hop names and phases in the genre, I don’t know enough about the sub-genres and history, especially what happened with music and production, to handle Nas as a figure or what makes people hang a big word like “classic” on Illmatic. Sure, I can read reviews - and I did (a hagiography, in fact) - but I want to get to a place where I know hip-hop well enough to recognize the musical/aesthetic choices a given artist makes instead of repeating some variation of, “yeah, but I’m a whore for piano.”

How far do I have to go? Probably not as far as I think. I re-watched Shadrach “Shad” Kabango’s (et. al.’s) Hip-Hop Evolution (on Netflix!) and, instead soaking in names (that was the first time around), I paid more attention to when each artist launched, and what they did on the musical side, especially (e.g., technical innovations, what they sampled, if they sampled at all, why, etc.). That's the kind of thing I needed to catch up on: how the music side evolved. Even allowing for a rounded handful of cultural blind-spots, I feel comfortable on the rhyme/lyrical side of things; basically, I’ll like the lyric/content combo and how any MC delivers it or I won’t, and that’s fine, because I know how language and rhythm work. Beyond that, rap/hip-hop has been legitimately mainstream for - what? - at least 20 years by now? Hip-hop is all over pop culture. So long as you pay attention to that, you know something.

That said, yes, I really did google “is it rap or hip hop,” and read what Ebony magazine told me. In my defense, that only underscored the malleability of hip-hop’s lexicon - skip to slides 3 and 4 for that - but, all in all, hip-hop equates to something like a cousin I’d heard about for years, but who I’m only now getting to know.

To take one step back to Nas before this series takes its first steps, Illmatic struck me as timeless when I heard it. Once I took “definitely not in the last five years” off the table, I couldn’t connect that album to anything in the scattershot timeline/collection at my personal disposal; even the date it came out (1994) meant as much to me as, say, someone giving me a random year during the English Restoration and saying, “you know what that means.” Because I don’t, I decided to go back to the beginning. Or at least the obvious one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

One Hit Wonder No More, No. 5: Don & Juan (& Doo Wop & Roy C), "What's Your Name"

Don & Juan (not necessarily left to right)
This one’s pretty simple: one guy performed as “Don” (Roland Trone), another as “Juan” (Claude “Sonny” Johnson), and they recorded a gently pining doo wop hit titled, “What’s Your Name.” Apart from Trone’s early death (1982, age 45) and acknowledgement of a later “lesser” hit, “Magic Wand,” there’s not much out there about Don & Juan, and there’s even less on the song itself. Johnson would go on to write a few dozen more songs, but the specific story begins and ends with: two guys recorded a good song and it became a big enough “monster hit” for them to achieve icon status in the doo-wop genre.

With that trailed petering out into nothing (and quickly; even The Monotones fought harder for their career (if with novelty songs)), and me wanting more to say, I poked first around people who worked with Johnson, and then did a little digging into the doo wop genre. (I can already turn the page on Trone, sadly, with his untimely death and his partnership with Johnson.)

Johnson, on the other hand, started in another doo wop act from New York’s Long Island called The Genies. That group formed in 1956, with Alexander Faison, Fred Jones, Bill Gains, and Roy Hammond (you’ll hear more about that last name) as founding members. They got discovered on a beach instead a street corner - the more typical doo wop origin story - but not much else separated them from the competition. The Genies did record an album, one that included their minor hit, “Who’s That Knockin,’” (cute tune about juggling lovers), but that didn’t happen until Johnson came over from Brooklyn and helped with the songs. Their ride to stardom crested at that, and the best story they left to history happened that one time, when Gains “ran off to Canada with a woman and has never been seen or heard from since.” He made that infamous break the night of The Genies one and only (I believe) show at the famous Apollo Theater.

Roughly three years passed between the end of The Genies run in 1959 and the release of “What’s Your Name?” in 1962. With doo wop big as it was - this coincided with that genre’s last, loud gasp - Don & Juan had to break through a lot of noise in order to be heard. The song, a masterful pairing of sound and content, a sort of musical onomatopoeia for love’s dumbstruck awe, gets credit for that. It doesn’t necessarily stand out beyond that, and that’s true of most of Don & Juan’s work. Like “Magic Wand” - and, for me, most of doo wop - the rest of Don & Juan’s body of work runs together, both musically and thematically. It’s mostly songs about love set to swing time, with tightly-knit harmonics. As with The Monotones’ “Book of Love,” Don & Juan’s particular spin on doo wop got them in the spotlight, but it couldn’t keep them there. Pop culture couldn’t eat doo wop forever, for one, and even the inventive, guitar hooks and atmospheric production on songs like “Pot Luck” and “All That’s Missing Is You” couldn’t buy them more time (would have piqued my interest, at least). On the other hand, songs like that prefigured Johnson’s future as a songwriter. The man could adapt.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

One Hit Wonder No More, No. 4: Bruce Channel, Hey! Baby

Pronunciation guide.
Yeah, you’ve got it. It is pronounced “sha NEL.” Of course that’s how you’d say it.

On the other hand, Bruce Channel, individual, sounds like he plays very much against that type over the course of one long, undated, and just fun interview I read. It covers a lot of ground - e.g., from the rock ‘n’ roll scene in late 1950s east Texas (he hails from a town called Grapevine) to his original manager, Major Bill Smith, and his fixation on Elvis Presley still being alive - and Channel comes off equal parts humble and charming through it all. It also offers a remarkable history of how music got made and promoted at the time, up to and including how Channel and Delbert McClinton, the musical partner he stumbled into in Major Bill’s studio, played with The Beatles when they were small enough to “open” for Bruce Channel. That was back in 1962,when they still had Pete Best on drums. (For what it’s worth, Channel floats a couple theories on why they let go of Best, one probably true, the other with a wink.)

If there’s one anecdote/myth that seems to keep coming up across what I’m reading about Channel and McClinton, it’s the story about John Lennon “learning everything he knows” about the harmonica from McClinton. Channel laughed that off as a joke McClinton tells, but the statement McClinton puts on it a separate (and also fascinating) interview puts it plainly enough to feel accurate:

“John did mention to me that he was inspired by ‘Hey! Baby.’ Of course, it's hard to show anybody anything on a harmonica. But later, he told someone I showed him everything he knew. Just like anything, it gets romanticized.”
Just to note it, if I could share a beer and a conversation with only one of Channel and McClinton, it wouldn’t be an easy choice, but leaning McClinton. He had the better connections overall. And the name of his original band? The Straitjackets. That one would still fly.

The two songs by The Beatles McClinton’s “harp” playing inspired were the parts of, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” (You don’t get the harmonica in the live performance of “Please Please Me” that I dug up, but you do get to see The Beatles play live, if with muddle audio.) Both men clearly admire and marvel at how the enormity of The Beatles, and the way they talk about it shows how well they understand the distance between them and the Liverpool legends (McClinton’s quick revelries about being a small-town Texas kid in London are worth the glance). All the same, they had some sense of the life of an overnight sensation.