Saturday Single No. 6

Originally posted March 24, 2007

There was a half-second of empty air after the commercial ended. A softly strummed guitar broke the silence, and then, above that, came the moan of an electric guitar playing one long note and then a short break of melody in a minor mode. A choir came in behind the guitars, a chorus of “oooooh” sounding as lonely as a back road while the guitar continued its forlorn dance above the chorus.

A quiet organ wash replaced the chorus as the drums entered and set a pace, and then a tortured voice sang, “Be on my side, I’ll be on your side, baby. There is no reason for you to hide . . .”

Rick and I paused whatever we were doing – probably playing a board game – and stared at the small radio and the sounds coming from its somewhat tinny speaker. What the hell was that? And who was singing?

The sounds of a summer night came through the screened windows of the porch that Rick’s dad had recently added to their house: oak leaves whispering in the wind, a car’s honk some blocks away, the faint breek-breek of frogs in the low places near the railroad tracks, the laughter of teens out walking in search of something, the distant horn of an approaching train.

But we kept looking at the radio, wondering what in the heck they were playing on WJON, whose studios were no more than two blocks away, just the other side of the railroad tracks.

It was 1970, and like many stations in non-metro America, WJON tried to be all things to all people. Daytime was farm reports, the Party Line show in the morning, news at regular times during the day, and, I seem to remember, lots of traditional pop music during the day: Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Al Martino and maybe, if the deejay were feeling adventurous, Hugo Montenegro’s version of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” with its eerie whistle and twangy guitars.

At night, from 7 o’clock on, the station played pop and rock, ranging from mostly Top 40 during the early hours of the segment to deeper cuts and slightly harder sounds as the night aged. And it was about 10 p.m., I guess, when Rick and I were transfixed by the sounds coming out of the radio.

Maybe Rick recognized the song as Neil Young’s “Down by the River,” but I don’t think he recognized the vocals as coming from funky drummer Buddy Miles.  I didn’t know either the song or the singer. I was still pretty unhip to most pop and rock music, although in the past nine months, I’d started to listen and to buy LPs. My first two purchases had been Chicago II and the Beatles’ Let It Be. It would be a while before I got around to Neil Young. And beyond hearing on radio the spooky sounds of his version of “Down by the River,” it would be a longer time yet before I got around to Buddy Miles and his combination of blues, funk and rock.

“Down by the River,” which Rick and I would hear several more times late at night that summer, was from Miles’ third solo album, Them Changes. His first two, Expressway to Your Skull and Electric Church, had been well received by critics. (Jimi Hendrix, with whom Miles would play in Band of Gypsys, had produced about half of Electric Church.) Earlier, Miles had been part of Electric Flag, a group that was eclectic in both its membership and its music.

He’s not always been received well by critics. I recall reading particularly savage reviews in the various editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and Album Guide. But in the years following Them Changes, Miles would team up with Carlos Santana on a well-regarded live album in 1972 and would record consistently through 1976. Since then, he’s been more sporadic, although reviews of his 2002 release, Blues Berries, sound promising.

For me, though, as intriguing as his other work may be, nothing will ever grab my attention and imagination as tightly as that first hearing of “Down by the River,” today’s Saturday Single, during that long-ago summer evening.

Buddy Miles – “Down by the River” [Mercury 73086, 1970]

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One Response to “Saturday Single No. 6”

  1. Buddy Miles, 1947-2008 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Buddy Miles twice in the past year – once detailing my first reaction to hearing his version of “Down By The River” on a summer night in 1970 and then discussing very briefly Miles’ treatment at the hands of […]

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