‘I Got One More Silver Dollar . . .’

Originally posted July 31, 2007

Man, you can get positively whipsawed reading about Buddy Miles!

Here – in its entirety – is what John Swenson, one of the co-editors of the first two editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, wrote during the late 1970s in those editions about the funk-rock drummer and singer:

“The solo career of this clownish, heavy-handed ex-Electric Flag drummer is a series of incredible gaffes, the likes of which have seldom been witnessed in the annals of popular music. His taste is awful, his playing almost always overbearing and he manages to make more judgmental errors than seem possible. ‘Them Changes’ is his anthem, and a decent funk song, which in this context is miraculous.”

Now, the reviewers in those first two editions of that book were sometimes nasty. (They were also sometimes very funny. I remember almost falling out of my chair when I read Swenson’s review of an album by an aspiring white blues player named Catfish Hodge: “Can blue men sing the whites? Hodge is as tedious as they come.”) But there are degrees of nasty, and the lashing that Swenson gives Miles almost makes me wonder if Miles cut Swenson off in traffic or hit on Swenson’s sister or something. There’s a level of vitriol in that paragraph that seems way out of proportion for a music review.

And yeah, it’s an old review. But much of Miles’ work to this day is based on his early recordings, those made with the Electric Flag, those made as part of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies and those made as a solo artist. It strikes me that Miles has over the years done far better than that harsh review augured. And he’s been better received, too.

Consider this review of Miles’ 1971 album, A Message to the People, written for All-Music Guide by Victor W. Valdivia:

“In the league of funk-rock albums, A Message to the People is top-notch. Buddy Miles was easily one the better bandleaders of the early ’70s, and his ability to unite a group of talented players around well-crafted songs definitely makes this one of his best albums. The gorgeous ‘The Way I Feel Tonight,’ the funky, horn-driven ‘Place Over There,’ and the lovely closing ‘That’s the Way Life Is’ all rank among Miles’ best songs and performances. Add to that two superb Gregg Allman covers (especially ‘Midnight Rider,’ which is arguably even more definitive than the original), and the results are impressive. Miles even predates hip-hop by lifting the horn riff from Joe Tex’s ‘You’re Right, Ray Charles’ and crafting it into a new instrumental cut called, fittingly, ‘Joe Tex.’ Only a dud cover of Percy Sledge’s ‘Sudden Stop’ is the album’s lone clinker. In fact, the album is so good, it’s mystifying why it barely clocks in at a meager half-hour. ‘That’s the Way Life Is’ and the clavinet-laden ‘The Segment’ are both over just as they’ve barely begun. Similarly, no sooner does the cover of ‘Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’’ settle into a powerful groove than it stops to segue into the next cut. Why Miles felt the need to edit the material so severely is bizarre, since the album could easily have been twice as long and still hit its mark. It’s a testament to Buddy Miles’ talent that, as first-rate as the album is, it will leave any listener wanting more. Still, A Message to the People is every bit a funk classic.”

Makes you wonder if they were listening to the same music, doesn’t it?

Well, there’s no accounting for taste or the lack of it, as all of us at one time or another make very clear. We all have our guilty listening pleasures (mine include French pop and a few tracks by Helen Reddy), and we all have those performers or performances that make us writhe in torment (“Seasons in the Sun,” anyone?). But such dissonance between two views of the same performer struck me as very odd. There’s no way to reconcile them except perhaps to note that a good deal of time passed in between, and time may have altered the way we look at some performers. There has been a general reassessment of earlier performances as earlier works were re-released on CD in the past fifteen years, and that reassessment may have been to Miles’ benefit. (The more recent reviews of his work came after 1997 and the release of the CD, The Best of Buddy Miles, which includes several tracks from A Message to the People.)

Anyway, guilty pleasure or not, I’ve generally enjoyed Miles’ work over the years, especially, as I wrote some time back, his version of Neil Young’s “Down By The River.” And I tend to agree with the AMG review that his version of “Midnight Rider” is extraordinary. It came out in 1971, a year after the Allman Brothers Band’s version was released on Idlewild South but two years before Gregg Allman released his solo version on Laid Back.

Is it the definitive version? That’s a tough call. I tend to lean toward Allman’s solo version from 1973. But to do as well as Miles does here performing a song that’s so strongly linked to its author is a remarkable feat. And we’ll leave it at that.

Buddy Miles – “Midnight Rider” [1971]

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One Response to “‘I Got One More Silver Dollar . . .’”

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

    […] discussing very briefly Miles’ treatment at the hands of critics when I presented his version of “Midnight Rider” […]

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